Thursday, August 26, 2010

Post from England

I came to England a lot as a child; and I have fled to England as temporary refuge as an adult. The England I visit is not the England of the film This is England or Coronation Street. The England I visit is of my past and my imagination - what would it be like to grow up with family close by? to travel roads that are tunnels of green daily, to have milk delivered in bottles, to make jam from fruit gathered from hedgerows and never be far from a castle? I have an unearned nostalgia for these things.

On my most recent visit my niece-lets (cousins once removed takes too long both to write and to say) and I went for a four mile ride. More accurately, I walked along side trying to look like a responsible adult should such a creature be required. The horse clearly thought not.

We walked up lanes shouldered by hedges jewelled with blackberries (fruit not PDA’s I hasten to add in advance of wiseacres). We climbed a hill past an abandoned orchard to views of the North and South Downs and quilts of fields of varied green. We passed a cottage where a brown lab sprang as if by magic from a large dog flap, ran to his gate tail wagging furiously but didn’t bark. We scared up a brace or two of pheasant as we passed through a quiet farm.

There are two pheasants to a brace, one male, one female, if anyone cares. Thomas Hardy has a poem, Afterwards in which he wonders if he'll be remembered as a "man who used to notice such things". I like to be a woman learns such things.The Paston Letters are a medieval collection valued by scholars for their insights into family life and manor management of the period. This trip I learned that just above a horse’s hoof is the paston joint. I have also learned how to prune roses, how to roll pastry properly and discovered slipcote, a mild sheep’s milk cheese.

I first had it in a quiche at Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville-West’s famous garden, and then bought some at a farmers’ market. I used it in a salad of rocket (aka arugula), cress and lettuce which I dressed with vinaigrette and topped with the cheese, sliced beets and walnuts, and served with thinly cut slices of my aunt’s homemade bread buttered. Madam, lunch is served. Thank you, Jeeves.

I have been to a pub where they offer a platter of three different kinds of chips (French fries) as an appetizer. I have also been to a pub, The Red Lion in Horsted Keynes where I had roasted pork belly with a cider sauce, served with a salty wafer of crackling, gently wilted spinach and a timbale of potatoes. Pudding (dessert) was a champagne jelly encasing summer berries.

The first day of my trip we had lunch in the garden to the sound of sheep bleating in the next field. My last day came quickly. Hope is an act of imagination, someone, a poet or philosopher once said. I hope to have more weeks of summer in England.

Five for the Road

The best argument I have heard for the Kindle, Kobo or any other electronic reader is that it means you can take more books with you on a trip than you would normally carry. I am more afraid of finding myself without engaging reading material than being without suitable clothing, as proven by this trip, when in a fit of uncharacteristic optimism, I packed almost nothing warm. But I had five books on board and another three waiting for me (free shipping within the UK? Why not?).

This trip I read three novels set in my other favourite country to visit, Italy. Inspector Montalbano frequently breaks the rules in pursuing the truth of his cases, but wait, this is Sicily and there are no rules, except perhaps that of the nobleman in di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, who insisted everything must change in order to remain the same. Montalbano knows he wins battles, but never the war and consoles himself with wonderful meals, especially local seafood.

Italophile mystery lovers will probably already know Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti series set in Venice and Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, but perhaps you haven’t read Peter Elbing’s The Food Taster. Starving to death in the late medieval countryside, Ugo is a widowed peasant with a lovely daughter when he lands a new job. Tasting the delicacies prepared for his local lord is part dream come true, part potentially a fatal nightmare.

There are several givens in the mystery genre. We are often served red herrings for instance. In the mystery set in Italy, we are also served superb food.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Empress of Ice Cream

Things lodge in your brain but aren’t understood for years. Years ago, in the throes of an excruciating break up this returned to me: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life.” I don’t have a lot in common with Tennyson’s Ulysses, but suddenly I understood that, along the pulses as Keats would have it.

More recently I hosted one of my Wonderful Wild Women parties. To these I invite the many WWW that I know, but who perhaps don’t know each other. In honor of summer it was an ice cream and cake party. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. It’s taken me decades to get that.

I have a theory that everyone has a defining paradox. I don’t know what mine is and it would be impertinent of me to say what yours is. So here’s an example, from someone I don’t know and can’t offend: Ben Franklin said something to the effect that you should live as if each day were your last and as if you were going to live forever.

Prayer flags, ice cream and relationships have a lot in common. Prayer flags fulfill their function, in fact become prayerful flags by unraveling. Ice cream can only be enjoyed in circumstances fatal to its iciness. Relationships, well perhaps you see where I’m going.

But you want to know about the ice cream. I made five flavors: cream cheese (yes, sounds weird), cherry with fruit fresh from the Niagara peninsula, malteser with wholesome chunks of organic maltesers, peanut butter and chocolate (if peanut butter and chocolate were people they’d be blissfully con-joined twins), and coffee. I’ve never had a store bought ice cream that did justice to coffee. Homemade ice cream isn’t difficult, as with bread, it is more a question of time than skill, and the results are infinitely better than store bought. I made three cakes: a lemon poppy seed pound cake, a buttermilk cake, both from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible, and a dense chocolate fudge cake.

I had hoped to make my party in the garden, but the weather thought otherwise and sent a monsoon. So we crowded into the living room. Conversation flowed, cake was had an eaten too, ice cream fulfilled its destiny and I felt truly joyous. So rarely and so lucky am I to be surrounded by so many caring, smart and kind women. When I first read the Wallace Stevens poem I remember tasking myself with remembering what concupiscent meant (lustful). Now I get the rest of it. It is a happy thing, if only to be had once a summer, to be an Empress of Ice Cream.

Overlooked (?) gems
When I find a writer I enjoy I make my way through their whole oeuvre. This can lead to disappointment – though it’s nice to know even great writers have some training wheels books. Sometimes a la Grey’s Elegy you discover that flower born to blush unseen.

Julian Barnes is most famous for Flaubert’s Parrot, but my favorite of his is England, England, a hilarious send up of the museum-ification of his home and native land. I would also recommend a slim volume, The Pedant in the Kitchen, about his adventures as a home chef.

Hilary Mantel is still topping the charts with her Booker winning Wolf Hall, but the book of hers that I would pack if exiled to a desert island is Beyond Black. Anyone can do tragedy. A lot of people can do comedy. A really skilful writer takes the reader the full 360 of experience. Hilary Mantel is a supremely skilled writer.

Anthony Burgess wrote many booky wooks, some would say too many, the most celebrated being Clockwork Orange. I spent two weeks at a northern Ontario fishing camp oblivious to black flies and impervious to boredom thanks to his Earthly Powers.