25 June, 2010

eight things I love about London

Actually, one of the things I like best about London is that as I was compiling this list, the number of "things I love about London" kept growing! I thought I'd better stop before I got to double digits. That's for another time.

But we are thinking a lot about how much we love it here, as we start thinking about leaving. Connecticut beckons: the green of the grass (cue Avery moaning here, about how predictable I am), the red of the barn, the blue of the sky, the white of the fence... our beloved family and friends. And we want to go, of course. But there is so much to love about our adopted city, such an idiosyncratic little list this evening, that I thought I'd let you in on some of the best. I'll warn you: it's no tourist list. It's the kind of list you make when you're fully entrenched somewhere, where the tiny bits that make your home loveable are weird, quirky, and all your own.

First, may I say how much I adore the fishmonger who has moved into my neighborhood? He is Tony of The Fishmonger's Kitchen in Shepherds Bush Road, and he's Australian, gorgeous, generous and funny. For months we and our neighbors looked in chagrin as the fishmonger before him jumped ship (so to speak), and the shop moldered (and molded, probably), and the hairdresser next door reported smells of grim death floating under the walls.

And then suddenly: there was Tony! With his lovely blue-painted chalk sandwich board out in front, trumpeting "Cooked Lobsters to Order" and "Why not throw some fish on the BBQ this weekend?" and "We now have fresh sushi!" From Tony I bought the many crabs necessary for my recent television sojourn, and the huge slabs of salmon for many dinners, as well as juicy pieces of yellowtail tuna to sear for a weekday lunch with my beloved, and gorgeously fresh king prawns (as you see!) to marinate in olive oil, smoked paprika and sea salt, to saute for two minutes and then pull their little heads off and lick your fingers.

Sauteed King Prawns with Paprika
(serves 4)

2 dozen king prawns, raw with heads and shells on
1 tbsp smoked paprika
6 tbsps olive oil
1 tsp sea salt (or to taste)
fresh-ground black pepper
a little more olive oil for the pan
chives to garnish

dipping sauce:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
juice of 1/2 lemon
squirt of prepared wasabi (as hot as you like it!)
fresh-ground black pepper

Cut each prawn up the back with scissors, ending before the tail. Place the prawns in as single layer as you can fit, on a large cookie sheet. Sprinkle with all marinade ingredients and smoosh them around, mixing the paprika with the oil. This releases a magnificently earthy, sensual aroma that will get your taste buds kicking in.

Sprinkle a little more olive oil in a very large skillet and heat till really hot. Place the prawns in immediately, all at the same time, and begin turning them as they turn pink. Continue to cook over high heat, turning all the time, until they turn stiff and are completely cooked (2-3 minutes total time, depending on size of prawns). Do NOT overcook beyond being JUST done.

Sprinkle with chives and serve over rice or spaghetti, spooning out all the oil and cooking debris from the skillet and sprinkling it over. Serve with the dipping sauce and provide a large body plate for the shells!


Thank you, Tony. Having you there in the road, to chat with on a hot summer's day, to report on the recipe of the night before, to stop in for some wickedly fresh Cornish haddock for tomorrow night's fish fry, makes every day just a little cozier, a little warmer, and our corner of London a little more like a village.

And then there's Sundrica, our gorgeous little Italian deli, for parmesan cheese to make my puttanesca even saltier than it already was! Never mind, skip salt tomorrow to make up for it. Sundrica is a tiny little space next to a flower shop by the Hammersmith tube stations, and is packed to the gills with delicacies that you won't know you needed until you walk through its magical doors. Italian tuna in olive oil, duck fat in plump glass jars, giant bowls of cured black olives, long rows of many whole salami, pepperoni, chorizo, pates of every description, sandwiches of mozzarella and basil on artisan bread, homemade gnocchi and ravioli... go, do. Pick up a tin of lovely Italian plum tomatoes, a chunk of parmesan, a handful or two of black olives, a packet of spaghetti and a tiny of anchovies and a jar of capers, and you're good for:

Spaghetti Puttanesca
(serves 4)

1/2 lb spaghetti
3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 handful (200 grams-ish) oil-cured black olives, pitted
1 soup-size can peeled tomatoes, cut in sixths
3 tbsps capers, rinsed if held in salt
6 anchovies, rinsed
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Boil spaghetti. In the meantime, mince the garlic and onion. Saute in olive oil in a saucepan, then when soft, add the olives, tomatoes, capers and anchovies. Saute till mixed. Throw in the drained spaghetti and serve with cheese.


This is wickedly, evilly good: strong-flavored, robust, not for the faint of heart. If you can find a tin of tiny whole cherry tomatoes, get those. They're whimsical, like slightly collapsed red balloons. Makes the whole dish even nicer.

Once you've brushed your teeth from all that garlic and anchovy, go to the Victoria and Albert and book tickets for "Grace Kelly: Style Icon" (you have to book them! there's no showing up on the day, it's far too popular). Take a teenage girl or two: it's the perfect event for them to see what glamor was really like. There are her REAL dresses from "High Society" and "Rear Window"! Avery's jaw simply dropped at the sight of these iconic garments, with their impossibly tiny waistlines... and there are lovely videos of her engagement announcement, her wedding, her honeymoon... and enough jewelled handbags, sunglasses and shoes to make any 13-year-old girl swoon. And the shop! There is nothing like the V&A shop. Avery always touches everything, and if her Iowa grandmother is with her, it takes twice as long because they EACH touch everything, with each other. Perfect for birthday party gifts.

And then, it's late June in London, so it's... Wimbledon. Can there be anything more satisfying than playing a magnificently sweaty game of tennis on our grotty local courts, coming home to shower and change, and flopping down on the sofa to watch a lovely American called John Isner duke it out for over 11 hours with a Frenchman? Over eight of those hours were SEQUENTIAL! The match played out, as you all know by now, over three days, and they are both my new heroes. Now, whenever John and I are exhausted after our hour, I say, "So let's do that for seven more HOURS." It was simply awe-inspiring. The only comparison I can possibly even suggest to myself is childbirth: at some point, or many points, one says to oneself, "I don't think I can see this process through. I think I'm done." And then one's husband says, "No one can have this baby but you. You'll have to stick it out." (I'm sure he said it more poetically and supportively than that, but you get the idea.)

It must have been like that for these two lads: with every impossible serve, they must have thought on some level, "I really can't be doing with this anymore," but what choice did they have? No one but they could finish the match. Truly inspiring!

And then, in my never-ending quest for new things to do that not everyone gets to do: go visit the Law Courts at and around Lincoln's Inn Fields and... hush hush... get to have lunch in the Members Common Room! It pays to have illustrious friends, I do have one, a very cool solicitor friend who is a loyal blog reader and therefore an unquestionably good person, and she kindly invited me along to lunch in the exalted space. It is the original wine cellars of the larger dining hall upstairs (in order to get into which one must be a barrister, which is the English type of lawyer who appears in court, not the type who works with the general public and is called a solicitor. But she walked upstairs with me after we had our lovely gossipy lunch, and we gazed upon the glorious vaulted ceiling, painted chandeliers, long refectory-style tables. "It's like Harry Potter!" she murmured, and exactly so! She described to me the old-fashioned barristers working in their Georgian offices and then repairing at the end of the day to their flats above, with menservants, just like Oxford dons...

It was such fun to see something private and impressive and rather secret-feeling, the buildings soaring around the Old Square and New Square, leafy and green, and encapsulated by wrought-iron fences to keep out people like me. I am happy to report that my friend is just as impressed with her surroundings as I was, so we were able to be gleeful for her together.

And then, of course, there is Avery's beloved school. I fully realize that the clock is ticking on my being welcome there, in fact on her being there at all. Of course come to that, the clock is ticking on everything, so I don't know why I should suffer particularly over the school, but it is quite the most magical place we could ever have envisioned sending her. This week was the Celebration for her year moving up into the Middle School from the Lower School, and frankly, the sight of all 100 of them in their teen glory, perfect bodies and hair and gorgeous smiles and all of them just starting out, so earnest and yet cool and sophisticated, was enough to make me want to cry, as usual. I do try so hard not to! Luckily I was brought from bathos by the sheer intelligence and charm of their presentations: "A Very Civil War: or, The Entire Recounting how Charles Stuart did come to lose possession of both head & crown in a single stroke with this sorry tale reduced to five minutes." If I told you that the girls' analysis of the salient battles was told in football-analysis language, would you find that as amusing as I did?

Sitting in the great hall, panelled up to the gallery from which girls hang, arms folded, clinging to their friends, listening to an excerpt from "The Crucible" in which most excitement was obtained from a concerted scream (the acoustics are impressive, I found!)... I felt completely happy, in spite of the heat!

(I interrupt this paean of love to London with a brief screech: enough with the heat already! We go to Connecticut for this! Let's have some nice drizzly grey for just a day or so, so I can stop being all pink in the face and sweaty, even before I start a game of tennis.)

Finally, tonight we picked Avery up from a cupcake-making birthday party (she decorated hers with Doctor Who references, per her current obsession.

She said, "It's really hard to make a Dalek's arm out of frosting."

We smiled at each other. "That's a good one for the game," I said, referring to our ongoing love affair with sentences that we reckon have never been uttered before.

"I know," she said, as we trooped to the car, she in her beautiful grey Bonpoint dress (dotted with chocolate from the cupcakes and gone suddenly too short with her shooting up), and a pair of tottery vintage charity-shop heels. Only Avery could get away with it.

We raced away from the party to my last thing-I-love, and that's the Old Vic. How many dozens of times we have driven there through town across the Westminster Bridge, looking up at Big Ben (which Avery always reminds me is not what you can see, not the tower at all, but the bell inside: the tower is St Stephen's Tower), Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye. It's the tourists' tour, only it's on the way to the theatre!

Tonight it was "The Tempest", and while it is not my favorite of dear Will's efforts (I simply cannot keep the plot straight, and Avery and I agree that the Ceres-Juno scene is not just incomprehensible, but downright annoying), but it was great fun to see the glorious staging, hear the idiosyncratic live music coming from both sides of the stage, and to revel in knowing that in this town, Shakespeare is a local playwright done good. It's funny how present he is, when you live here. He's alive and well, and we all feel that he must be reading the reviews, shaking his head over pedantic modern stagings, wishing he could throw an Elizabethan ruff over some character dressed as a bicycle messenger (I'm not making that up). The Old Vic is simply a cozy, elegant, friendly theatre that simply churns out beautiful productions: "Gaslight" last year, the never-to-be-forgotten "Six Degrees of Separation" this spring, and tonight... I, well, I LOVE it.

And... did you know that when you book tickets for a play in London, the choices of "title" (instead of just Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms and Dr), include "Lady", "Lord" and "Sir"! I love that too.

And there you have them: eight things I love about living here. I wish you could do them all with me, but then if you lived here, you'd have your own eight things. That's what makes this city great. If you ever think you're a tiny bit bored, all you have to do is look up and there is something to cherish, to invite a friend to do, to chortle about afterward, to hold to your heart and enjoy. Now... it can cool off.


A Work in Progress said...

I agree - Lincoln's Inn is very cool! And the school sounds just wonderful - I hope we will be as happy with our choice in the fall. She goes tomorrow to meet her new form teacher. Have a good trip to the US - I think having that split life would be enriching, and it must give you so much material as a writer. But - can you get us the recipe index before you go?!?! Intrepid home cooks are waiting with bated breath!

Kristen In London said...

Well! As a matter of fact, tomorrow I am hosting, for lunch (chicken breasts in homemade breadcrumbs with a chickpea-feta salad) my Blog Maestro who will unveil the real thing! I have every expectation of something major happening in a matter of days... watch this space!

Anonymous said...

I am glad I am not the only one who has to suppress tears when attendinga school event for one of my children--and I seem to be getting worse not better. I just droped my 6 year old off for her first day of day camp and I felt myself tearing up as she did morning jumping jacks with the counselors. How silly is that. Enjoy your remaining days is London and I hope you get a couple of cool ones. It has been hot hot hot in NY for the past week or so and it doesn't look like it is going to stop anytime soon.

Kristen In London said...

Oh, Min, I'm a basket case at school things. Next week is the Summer Concert where they sing "I Vow to Thee, My Country" which is an instant tear-jerker as their little voices soar!

I just heard from my brother in law in CT that it is gorgeous there! Has the relief come to NYC yet?