05 May, 2010
catching up with Wiltshire (with a little Rye along the way)
Life: speeded up. I cannot believe it's been a month since our unforgettable trip to Wiltshire, most especially the magical town of Salisbury, and that I am just now sitting down to look at these evocative photographs, and to describe a bit of our fun.
Just before we left, of course, was the horrid burglary and the loss of my laptop and my camera. Brilliant John was able to retrieve our photos from some Big Brother umbrella online, so everything is safe. But I have been astonished at how naked I feel without a camera! I have gotten so used to simply whipping it out to record a dish, or something Avery's doing, or a beautiful sight in the countryside, that to have an empty hand and just eyes to remember has been an unpleasant surprise.
Thank goodness John's mother had a camera in her possession when we were out of the house being burgled, and she is the Compleat Recorder of Everything That Happens, so we have marvellous photos of Wiltshire.
Since then, of course, we've had The Adventure of the Volcanic Ash, and all the mess that went with it. Finally, though, everyone is back in place at home, at school, and I've been on an adventure: to Rye, in East Sussex, on a reunion with my foodie and food-writing friends from the Arvon Foundation. Three solid days of FOOD. I dragged with me all the ingredients for my grilled teriyaki salmon, three-cabbage slaw with fennel, celery and carrots, pesto, many, many packets of sausages and bacon from my beloved Giggly Pig in the Hammersmith farmer's market... you can imagine the weight of my suitcases!
All weekend we did nothing but shop for food, cook, talk about methods, ingredients and memorable dishes, then EAT. And sit around talking about cooking and eating! Pure heaven. Everyone contributed, with very little discussion or arrangement, special dishes, and the table groaned night after night. Rosie's slow-roasted pork belly with rosemary, lemon and superb crackling, Pauline's cauliflower roasted with chilli olive oil, a sauce of pork juices, Calvados, red wine and butter... Beets roasted and tossed with chopped parsley and lime juice, and finally Sunday lunch of two gorgeous legs of lamb, slow-roasted with Adam's ambrosial marinade of every savoury ingredient imaginable: harissa, anchovy fillets, lime juice, garlic, rosemary, olive oil...
And the desserts! I started out as I usually do, saying warningly, "Don't have your feelings hurt. I don't really like sweet things." But maybe it's just that I don't like rubbish sweet things! Because I liked everything: Sam's Victoria sponge with raspberry jam filling, Rosie's chocolate and Amaretto slice, and her incomparable Bramley apple crumble with homemade toffee sauce and custard! The chocolate slice, ah... quite wonderful: a kick of alcohol, a crunch of crushed biscuits, fluffy perfect creamy chocolate.
Through it all, we discussed food. What would be our Desert Island Ingredient (butter, for me). Does bread count? Last dish on earth? Foie gras creme brulee for me, smoked salmon for someone else, a perfectly cooked steak...
Conviviality, humor, generosity beyond belief. That is my group of friends, the Gathering of Nuts in May. Susan's humor, Caro's sparkling wit, Louise's booming laugh, Katie's smiling appreciation of us all... everyone so talented, warm and supportive. One of my favorite lines? I was complaining that too many English puddings contained gelatine, and said pompously, "Americans don't like anything wobbly!" And nearly everyone chorused, "Except themselves!"
Rosie's Celestial Chocolate and Amaretto Slice
(serves about 8)
10 crushed Amaretti biscuits
125 grams high-cocoa-content chocolate (Valhrona is excellent)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp strong espresso coffee
1 tbsp Amaretto liqueuer
4 eggs, separated
1 tbsp caster sugar
300 ml double cream
Line a loaf tin with greaseproof paper, then place half the crushed biscuits on the bottom.
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, then stir in the butter, coffee and Amaretto. Set aside.
Whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar until fluffy, and set aside. Whip cream, then mix it with chocolate mixture.
Beat egg whites till stiff and gently fold into chocolate mixture. Pour into loaf pan and refrigerate overnight, very important. When ready to serve, unmold from pan and scatter remaining crushed biscuits on top. If you want to be posh, Rosie suggests a shot glass of Amaretto on the side. HEAVENLY.
One lunch out: should you find yourself in Camber Sands, a stretch of sandy beach a few miles outside Rye, slip into "The Place at the Beach" and prepare for a treat. A simply gorgeous starter of creamy smoked haddock gratin with spinach, then massive fish and chips with a truly memorable tartare sauce. Don't get Caro started on the risotto, however: uncooked, tasteless and quite inedible. Back to our little rented house on a sheep-filled hillside to cook another perfect meal for ourselves...
Now I am home. For a brief moment, it seems. My head is spinning a bit from what's on my desk and mind right now: just home from Rye, I'm now heading off to Indianapolis on Monday to visit my dear mother, father and brother for five days. Before that, I'm signing the permission slip for Avery's trip to Bath on the 15th, listening to John talking about going to Dublin the next weekend to look at his beloved Georgian architecture, looking into tickets for our return home in July, signing permission slips for Avery's trip to St Petersburg before Christmas!
Yesterday afternoon, I just wanted to sit down and breathe for a moment. So I did.
I took a nap! Just collapsed on the sofa in peace, listening to Avery practice her singing lesson downstairs in the kitchen, and Tacy lay across my legs while I watched the trees along the road wave their springy yellowy-green leaves, where bare branches had accompanied my late-afternoon naps in the approaching dark of late winter. Peace.
Peace was what characterized Salisbury, no doubt! We arrived at the Wardrobe, a Landmark Trust building in the heart of the Cathedral Close, and practically in the shadow of the spire. As with all Landmark Trust houses, total simplicity and perfection. "Old Chelsea" china, perfect cleanliness, a little bar of soap with LANDMARK carved into it, harsh white sheets and piles of woollen blankets on all the beds, and VIEWS. Of the red roofs of Salisbury, the Avon river stretching out under the window, the manicured gardens of Ted Heath's house next door!
Oh, the gorgeous cobblestoned courtyard of our ancient little house (a military museum sits underneath, part of the agreement with the Landmark Trust to have the little apartment for holiday lets)... and then the Green, stretching in a serene square bounded on three sides by Georgian houses and exquisite gardens, and then the Cathedral itself sits in medieval splendor, its spire reaching far into the sky. How far? I'll tell you... it's a long, long walk.
But we did it! We booked a tour of the Tower with one of the Cathedral guides, and I may tell you that as soon as our eyes met, I felt a deep and appreciative kinship. His name was Alastair, and he took to our little American party straightaway. Americans, I can tell you from long experience of both being one and observing them in and out of captivity, put to shame any other nationality when it comes to getting the most out of a tour guide. We ask questions! And right away it was clear that this was no ordinary guide, armed with a few facts and Health and Safety warnings about pregnant women not being allowed to climb the Tower.
"Why did the workers bother putting so much of themselves into this Church?" I asked, trying to imagine them working endless hours with no electricity or proper equipment, sanding marble pillars, carving limestone, killing themselves. "Ah, yes, that is a crucial question," Alastair jumped in at once, his eyes sparkling as he warmed to his theme. "Their lives were nasty, brutish and short, spent in darkness and filth in lonely little cabins. Their children died, they themselves had a life expectancy of between 25 and 35 years... how important it must have been to think that there was another life to come, a much better one, and this place was the stepping stone to that better life..."
We climbed the hundreds of steps up a winding stair barely wide enough to accommodate us one at a time, the worn stone steps barely deep enough for our feet, Avery and me with our combination of agoraphobia and claustrophobia. I swear I could feel the tower swaying in the breeze! We stopped for breath in the clock chamber, and in the bell chamber, while Alastair pointed out medieval ironwork, ancient rooflines, and the water pipes climbing all the way from the ground. So many towers simply burned down.
DING DONG, DING DONG!
Avery and I had heart attacks. We had not been expecting the chime! Alastair smiled indulgently at us and led the way, at the top of the inner tower, to the standing area outside, looking FAR below us to the green below, and we could see our Wardrobe! Simply stunning, and stunningly frightening. But we did it. "I am standing here imagining the tower just toppling over," Avery moaned, and I completely agreed. It felt very insubstantial, and VERY high up.
Back down, so much less frightening than going up. And worth the trip! We chatted more with Alastair, asking question after question, and he knew far more than we could even think to ask. Finally at the bottom, he asked if we had seen the Magna Carta yet, and upon hearing no, strolled over to the desk to ask if he could lead us through the exhibition. How intriguing to think that the Charter that the Pilgrim fathers were so keen to protect was their own copy of the great Magna Carta, ensuring a swift and speedy trial to all free men.
The document itself was strangely diminished: tiny and impossible to read, even if one read Latin. So small, to have accomplished so much.
The feeling of religion, of the place of the church in life, both medieval and present, was all around us. A ghostly organist practiced in the moonlit evenings, alone in the giant Cathedral. "Wouldn't it be funny," Avery chuckled, "if he broke into the theme from 'The Phantom of the Opera'?" Late at night, after a roast chicken and couscous, I said, "Listen! Bells..." and sure enough we could hear ringing. We wandered into the sleeping village and followed the sound, and there, magically, was a church, on bell-ringing practice night. Avery cowered in the graveyard, sure she saw an open grave just waiting to welcome her, and bats flew overhead as I stood in bliss, listening to the chimes, imagining Lord Peter Wimsey in that greatest of all crime novels, "The Nine Tailors," ringing away on a snowy Christmas Eve... heaven!
"Go in and ask to meet them!" John and his mother urged. "Just introduce yourself and see if they will show you around," but I was too shy.
Our days were so splendidly quiet and peaceful: we devoted ourselves to one of the many puzzles we accomplished over the week: you simply MUST order a puzzle from the Wentworth Company: all wooden pieces, and a few whimsical among them shaped like the subject of the puzzle! So a puzzle about a garden included pieces shaped like tiny spades, flower blossoms, garden hoses. How peaceful the afternoons were, John's mom hovering with one of her inevitable cups of coffee, Avery with a slice of apple cake, me with a glass of sparkling water, fighting over "that's my piece!" John napped or worked on the computer, John's mom tried to get through "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel, Avery curled up with Sherlock Holmes, I puttered in the kitchen. Simple peace.
The night of the tower tour, we decided to spring for dinner out, and ended up, after mature consultations with the house Logbook and previous visitors' reports, at Anokaa, a fusion Indian restaurant right in the heart of Salisbury (which is a completely charming town in an of itself, although our loyalty was to the Cathedral Close). Starve yourself for the day and be prepared to be overwhelmed by Anokaa, its inventive menu, the charming and generous waiters... crispy lamb's liver with a chickpea pancake! Lentils smothered in garlic, spinach and okra, chicken in unusual sauces, the crunchiest papadum, the softest naan. Avery went traditional and ordered a creamy chicken korma, and the scent of delicate coconut milk wafted over us all.
And guess who was there as well? Alastair! With his family. I quickly succumbed to one of my usual impulses, and invited him to dinner the next night, and to my joy he accepted, just on his own because his wife would be away that evening. Glorious! More time to ask him questions.
He turned up precisely on time, with a gift for us: a glorious picture book of the Cathedral, its history, its floods and famines, great tombstones and inscriptions. How lovely. We sat down to dinner, talking nineteen to the dozen, and John's mother said gently, "Why not ask Alastair if he knows anyone at that church in town, someone you could ask questions about the bells?"
A moment's silence. Then he said, "Stay right here," and went to fetch his phone. He demonstrated its ringtone: handbells! "I am a ringer at that church," he said, "and let me make one phone call..." And then he was on the phone to the head of the ringers, explaining that he had a friend he'd like to bring by in the morning. To hear their ringing before services!
And guess what his favorite book in the world is? "The Nine Tailors." "It was read aloud to us as schoolboys," he reminisced, "and those were wonderful evenings, working out the change-ringing in the plot, imagining ourselves as Lord Peter..." He spent the rest of the dinner working out changes for me on a scrap of paper, explaining everything so that I understood, finally, after years of reading that novel in puzzlement.
So the next morning found me in the bell chamber, sitting quiet as a mouse on a bench along the wall, listening to the ancient calls I've read about so often... "Treble's going, treble's gone..." and reading tablets on the walls about great peals they've rung, and the instructions for the changes in Kent Treble Bob. Just like in the book, I kept thinking, and their pulls down, the rhythmical flight of the ropes, the men's (and one woman's!) faces as they looked to each other to know when to pull their ropes. The half hour flew by as I watched and listened. Then they all smiled indulgently at me, tied up their ropes and went on their ways, joking about how he who rings the treble bell does so only because it's all the poor man's capable of, bringing up the rear, making fun of each other's accents, lots of inside English jokes that I would have to live there a hundred years to understand. But, oh, I was in heaven trying!
Alastair unlocked the door to the belfry, and one of the men rang the treble bell alone, so I could hear it, and feel the swaying of the wooden structure holding it up, and that's just with ONE BELL ringing! Imagine during an entire peal, how powerful the sound is.
Well, that was the magic of Alastair Lack, whose guidance through the Cathedral you must ask for should you get there. Thank you, Alastair, for making one of my dreams come true.
And Stourhead House! This bridge forms part of its gorgeous landscape, used in the 2005 "Pride and Prejudice," so we made our pilgrimage to it, having a lovely picnic in the grounds, and then making our way along what we came to think of as the Stourhead Death March, an unbelievably LONG walk round hill and dale till we finally came to the house, panting and puffing. And it was a yawn, except for the Music Room, where as you see, "Pianists are welcome to play." It was a moment of a child's lifetime, at least for the adoring adults surrounding her. She sat right up at the Steinway (our piano will never sound the same, now) and played one of the themes from the score of "Pride and Prejudice," the elegant, simple sounds ringing against the carved ceilings and ancient paintings. When she finished, the notes drifted away and all the tourists and tour guides in the room applauded. How I missed John's dad at that moment. He would have beamed with pride at his granddaughter, in a moment of supreme dignity and elegance.
More on Wiltshire next... think New Forest. Think... PONIES.