Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A feast for all the senses

At the end of April, we took a trip to Oxford, one of the few major British destinations we had not yet seen. It was lovely, every bit of it. It was the kind of weekend that makes the following Monday seem even harder, but it was worth it, because it was relaxing, satisfying, edifying, and inspiring.

We met at Paddington Station on Friday evening after a hard day's work and hopped on the train. Andrew had grabbed a bottle of wine to enjoy en route, but we didn't have a corkscrew and they didn't have one in the buffet car, either. A very nice young couple across the aisle from us, recognising our predicament, shared some of their pinot grigio with us, in classy little plastic cups. We switched trains at Reading and got to Oxford in around an hour and half. It felt like we'd traveled hundreds of miles, though; London felt so far behind us.

We took a taxi from the station to our bed & breakfast, and we felt even further away. The owner was a gregarious South African named Stefan, and his establishment was comfortable and refreshingly free of any overblown floral fabrics. He gave us a recommendation for dinner, and it was a real recommendation, too. He didn't just list the restaurants that were nearby; he said "You must go to The Fishes. This is exactly the sort of food you should be eating." And he was right. We walked about twenty minutes to a tiny village on the outskirts of Oxford and found ourselves at a charming gastropub (which really just means, as far as I can tell, really good food with a focus on local, free-range, organic, etc. ingredients in a comfortable, slightly trendy setting. So, pretty much exactly what I look for in a restaurant). We shared a selection of appetizers, including fresh sardines, hummus, razor-thin slices of roast beef, blue cheese, chutney, and bread. It was all piled onto a big, chunky wooden cutting board, very rustic. Andrew went for steak and chips, and I had a scallop and bacon salad. Dessert was creme brulee and lemon parfait (not the layered ice cream sundae-type parfait, but a frozen meringue-type parfait). Everything was absolutely delicious and obviously made with love and attention. I could taste that the sardines had never seen a can, and neither had the chickpeas in the hummus. It's amazing the difference that can make. My scallops were some of the sweetest I'd ever tasted. Everything was just a little bit special; for instance my creme brulee had some creme fraiche in it, so it was a little tangy to cut through the sweetness. Amazing food, and a really good deal, too!

Let me warn you now, this will be a food-heavy post. We found better food in Oxford than we've found in London, for the most part. And that's quite a claim.

The next morning, we had a nice breakfast: the usual "full English" but with nice touches like a beautiful fruit salad and homemade banana bread. Then we set off for the day. Saturday was all about Blenheim Palace, just north of Oxford near the village of Woodstock. It's one of the most spectacular houses ever built, I reckon. It's most famous to Americans as being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and I think he's probably the only person associated with the place who wasn't a total scoundrel, but that's just the way things go, I suppose. Oxford has a really good bus system, and it was very easy to find our way into town and up to the palace. We saw just a peek of the town on our bus ride, enough to pique our interest for Sunday. We arrived at the gates of the palace and walked down a long drive to get to the palace itself. We were quite impressed by the facade, but then we realised that we were only looking at the side of an annex wing. We entered the courtyard from one side, and then we saw the real palace. It's quite imposing. It's beautiful, certainly, but not really enviable. It looks more like a temple than a home. It was fantastic to visit, though.

We started by visiting the rooms on the ground floor of the palace. These were the state rooms, and they looked like the state rooms of any other palace: lots of brocade, tapestries, gilt furniture, huge silver urns. There was also a nice display of Churchill memorabilia that made me want to learn more about old Winston. Then we went back outside into the sunshine and had a tea break with a scone and ginger cake. We meandered through the grounds after that, first walking along the shore of the lake and then exploring the gardens. There was quite a variety of scenery, from quiet lakeside glades to a broad lawn that seemed to extend for miles. There was a charming waterfall and a "secret garden" with beautiful spring blossoms. The daffodils seemed to be a couple weeks behind London's, too. There were seas of yellow flowers.

After our stroll through the gardens, we bought a bottle of Blenheim estate water (not that there was a choice) and lay down on a hillside high above the lake. We both fell asleep for a little while - just long enough to get a bit pink - which felt like a total luxury. Then we walked down to the "pleasure gardens," where we saw a butterfly house, a tiny replica of nearby Woodstock village, and a sweet hedge maze. Then we went back to see the first floor of the palace, which turned out to be a collection of rooms featuring an ill-fated effort to turn the history of the Marlborough family into a Disney-style attraction with outdated audio-animatronics. We laughed, then went back out into the grounds and walked up a hill to a huge column commemorating the first Duke of Marlborough. It was an impressive column, but the inscription on the sides of it was nothing more inspiring than the text of a legal writ setting out the details of Queen Anne's gift to the family of the palace and grounds. There were several feet of inscription devoted to the succession of the palace to daughters as well as sons. There were also a lot of leftovers from a flock of sheep that had apparently been allowed to graze near the column. We walked back along the other side of the lake, past several extravagantly coloured pheasants, to Woodstock village, which is the most charming town I have ever seen in my life. It looks like the most recent development was about 300 years ago, but everything has been kept up perfectly. We had a gin and tonic while waiting for the bus, then went back to Oxford to dress for dinner. What a trying life we do lead :-)

Getting to dinner did prove to be somewhat trying as our taxi was about 20 minutes late, but while we were waiting, we met a Swiss couple who we helped to find a hotel (our B&B was full). They gave us a card with their email address and invited us to stay with them in Bern any time!

Eventually our taxi showed up and took us through town to the River Cherwell Boat House, which is indeed a place to rent boats to go punting on the river. It's also a lovely restaurant, and we had a table overlooking the peaceful little river. We had a pinot blanc and started with the evening's amuse bouche of parsnip soup with tarragon foam - a lot more tasty and substantial than it sounds. Then I had a pea and mint mousse with crisp pancetta to start. Andrew had haddock with lentils and pesto. For dinner, I had trout and a butter sauce with tiny shrimp in it. It came with a painterly swish of sweet potato puree and braised fennel. Andrew had exceptionally creamy risotto with asparagus and parmesan. It was all really intense and beautiful. Dessert did not disappoint, either. I had chocolate mousse with a cumin-caramel sauce that was subtly spicy. Andrew went for the tiramisu, which was so much more delicious even than normal tiramisu, although I'm not sure how. The whole meal was delicious, and we had a really nice walk through town afterwards. We stopped at the Eagle and Child to look around and see where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to hang out when they were students. We wandered past some of the colleges, too, and thought about how wonderful it would be to study in such an amazing place. Then we caught the bus back to the B&B to rest after a long and wonderful day.

The next day we got up pretty early so we could get into town to walk around before we had to go back to London. We went to the botanical garden first. It features in His Dark Materials, which we both read recently for the first time. It's also a really nice little garden, with signs on all the plants, which I love. We've seen a lot of the same plants in different parks and gardens this springtime, and at the garden we got to see lots of different varieties of those same kinds of plants. We now know euphorbia and hellebore when we see them. Euphorbia is a particularly neat-looking plant. It, along with many of the plants in the botanical garden, is a very mathematical plant, with regular patterns resulting in fantastical structures. The one disappointing aspect of the garden was that there were thousands of irises that had not yet started to bloom. A couple weeks later and I would have been in heaven there! But all the flowers that were blooming were beautiful, and there were birds singing all over the place. We also got to watch people trying to punt along the river, which we decided was more fun than actually trying to punt ourselves. I know that from experience at Cambridge!

After the garden, we wandered around the colleges and found an amazing little store that sold board games, magic tricks, and math books. The store clerk showed us some tricks with a crystal ball and we leafed through some books showing the relationship between MC Escher's drawings and advanced geometry. They even had books on quilts and math. Then we found the philosophy building, saw the colleges of some of our favorite authors, and had a nice lunch in a cafe on the high street. I had a bloody mary and some beautiful crab salad, while Andrew had a Croque Madame. Delicious. Then it was back to the B&B, on the bus to the train station, and back to London. It was one of the best weekends ever. This is why we moved to England. Although spending so much time in a college town may have been somewhat counter-productive in terms of our job satisfaction, it was inspiring at the same time. Not that we are far removed from academia and general scholarship what with all our reading, but every once in a while you need a reminder of why you are who you are, and I think Oxford represents the sort of idealized scholarship and learning-for-the-sake-of-learning that Andrew and I thrive on. We just need to remember that it's a state of mind not limited to professors and college students. And any time we need a reminder of how beautiful learning can be, it's just a train ride away in Oxford.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Good Thames (like good times, get it?)

We've been having a rollicking good time lately. Last weekend was jam-packed with all sorts of fun and games.

I started the weekend by meeting my friend Courtney (of the London Gator club, for which she is going to hand over responsibility to me!) for a drink at a nearby trendy bar. I hadn’t seen her in ages, and it was good to catch up and hear what she’s been up in the past few months. I also got to meet a couple of her friends. It was so nice to be with a group of girls. I realized yesterday that unless I make a special trip to see the receptionist at work and have a 30-second conversation with her about the weather or something, I never get to talk to anyone female in the course of a normal day. That can’t be healthy. But I had a lovely time with Courtney and her friends and enjoyed my strawberry Tom Collins.

After that, I was off to meet Andrew for dinner at Villandry. We had reservations for the special London Restaurant Week menu, where you get a three-course meal for just £25. Marvellous. I started with a nice charcuterie platter with various salamis and hams and some incredible celeriac remoulade, while Andrew had a seafood bisque that arrived in a copper saucepan, from which the waitress poured the soup into a warmed tureen at the table. Then I had chicken paillard with arugula salad and red pepper relish. Andrew had steamed sea bass with tapenade and roasted potatoes. Finally, I had a flourless chocolate cake and Andrew went for the lemon tart. It was utterly fabulous. I was especially pleased because I had heard of Villandry, I think in a Nigella Lawson book, well before we moved to London. When I went for my first job interview in the fall, I showed up early and walked around the neighbourhood. I spotted the restaurant and sighed, thinking that I would never get to go somewhere like that. But now I’ve been, and I loved it.

On the way back home from the restaurant, we ran into some people Andrew knew from the bank, and we went for a drink with them around the corner. I love seeing the reactions of people when they see Andrew. It was just the same at Barnes & Noble. They absolutely light up; they are so happy to see him. I felt like I was being escorted by a movie star. But then I always feel that lucky to be with Andrew.

Saturday was another fantastic day. We had a leisurely breakfast, Andrew went for a run, and then we headed into town. We went to the Tate Britain gallery, where I went just a few weeks ago with Elise. I wanted to take Andrew because he hadn’t been before, and the museum just put on display two Pre-Raphaelite paintings on loan from a museum in Puerto Rico. One of the paintings was Flaming June, which is one of my favourites. It was spectacular in “real life,” much more beautiful even than all the posters I’d seen of it (including one I hung on the walls of all my dorm rooms and apartments in Gainesville). The way the artist (Frederic, Lord Leighton) painted the folds of the transparent orange fabric was amazing. You can see all the curves of the body underneath. It was really quite breathtaking. And I could finally see the setting of the painting. The top is usually cropped in posters, and in the actual painting, you can see that the sleeping woman is outside on a terrace overlooking the sea at sunset.

The other painting was a huge mural, probably 10 feet high and 20 feet long, of the death of King Arthur, by Edward Burne-Jones. I’ve always loved his paintings. They are easily recognisable by the uniform beauty of the women; they are always tall and lithe, with calm features and faraway looks on their pale faces. If I were to inhabit a painting, I might choose a Burne-Jones work. The King Arthur painting was spectacular to see, for both its size and its beauty. The colours were rich jewel tones in sharp contrast to his usual muted palette, and the details of the clothing, architecture and gardens were stunning. Hanging in the same room as the mural were several of the artist’s drawings, and it was neat to see the progression from sketch to finished work.

Andrew is a big fan of sculpture, and the Tate was also showing a special exhibition of neoclassical sculptures that were collected by Englishmen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were beautiful: lots of nymphs and maidens, busts of political figures, and mythical scenes. My favourite was a sculpture of a girl in a Turkish slave market. The chains around the girls ankles made her appear even more delicate and beautiful. And it’s amazing that working with such a solid material as marble, sculptors can capture such fragility.

But before we saw any of the art, we went to the museum café, in a room covered in a gorgeous, fantastical mural with knights on horseback chasing unicorns and toga-clad children cavorting with unicorns, plus, strangely, an Oxbridge undergraduate wearing a straw boater riding a bicycle. It was all set in a landscape that veered from classical woodland to pagoda-dotted hillsides and ruin-filled valleys. It was fun to look at as we enjoyed our afternoon tea with little sandwiches and pastries. The whole afternoon made me remember why I love England.

Which leads quite nicely into our Sunday activity, which was a trip up to Bedfordshire to visit a St. George’s Day festival with Amy and Don. St. George (of dragon fame) is the patron saint of England, and his saint’s day is the 23rd of April. It has become somewhat controversial, because many people in England fear any hint of nationalism or patriotism, but the current government is promoting those very notions, and so this year there were more St. George’s Day festivities than usual, I gather. At any rate, English Heritage was proud to celebrate St. George, and they put on a festival at Wrest Park. We took the train up there in the morning fog (that turned into the afternoon fog and then the evening fog…) and got a taxi to the park. There is a huge house there, but the real feature is the park and gardens. We only saw a little bit of the park because the weather was not great, but what we saw was green and beautiful.

The festival was spread out over the lawns. There were arenas for medieval fair-style shows (juggling, acrobatics, that sort of thing), vendors selling family trees on fake parchment, pewter goblets, and, because it’s England, a beer tent. I must admit, after shivering in the cold and the damp, it felt nice to sit in the beer tent and share some cider and roast pork sandwiches with the crew. We watched a show revolving around a bed of nails and audience participation (I can’t hear you…When I say St. George, I want you to cheer!) and a pageant featuring St. George on horseback and some lucky person in an awesome dragon costume. We also saw a falconry display and lots of soldiers dressed in uniforms from throughout Britain’s history. It was pretty cool! Even Amy got over her cynicism and had a good time. Afterwards, we found a nearby pub for some more cider and a village pig roast, then it was back to London and back to the work week. Phew!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Settling nicely

It's been a busy month for both of us here, but there hasn't been all that much blog-worthy activity. We're both busy (and mostly happy) with job stuff. Andrew just started today as the branch manager at a Barclays near our flat, which is fantastic. He's been working really hard, and his managers have noticed. I'm working on another round of job applications, but I don't feel too bad about my current job, so there's not too much stress there. I've been going to ballet every week, and Andrew's running five times a week and going to karate. We spend a lot of time on the weekends with Amy and Don. We all went out for Mexican food the other night, which was a blast.

Yesterday, Andrew and I took a long walk and went to a garden festival, where we got to see lots of pretty flowers, walk through a hedgerow maze, and watch a sheep shearing demonstration. On the way home, we stopped at a country pub, and we found a lovely forest to walk through that felt like it was straight out of a storybook. Speaking of books, we've both been reading a lot lately. Andrew's on an Orwell kick, and I've just about worked my way through all the classics at Enfield library. I'm on Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. That just leaves some P.G. Wodehouse; then I'll have to find a bigger library!

On the taking-advantage-of-living-in-England front, a couple weeks ago, we went to the Natural History Museum after hours to see a wildlife photography exhibit and have some wine and tapas in the giant hall with a big dinosaur display. We're going to see a ballet in a few weeks at the Royal Opera House. This Friday, we're going to a fancy restaurant for a London Restaurant Week deal, and the weekend after that, we're going for a weekend break to Oxford. We've booked a really nice bed and breakfast, and we're having a romantic dinner on the river, and we're going to Blenheim Palace. Shortly after that, Robert and Diane will arrive and we'll all go to Ireland for a few days, and the summer will follow shortly thereafter (finger crossed for drier weather!)