Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Haute culture

One day in April last year, Andrew came home from work with a surprise: tickets to a piano concert featuring the first performance in 15 years by a pianist who rose to prominence as a child prodigy but had to stop performing because he developed Tourette's Syndrome. He spent the intervening years hiding out in a huge house in the middle of nowhere, playing Bach in darkened rooms, but vowed he would some day return to the stage. And he did, last April. His name is Nick Van Bloss. We saw him perform with the English Chamber Orchestra. The program included:
  • Bach: Keyboard Concerto in G minor
  • Beethoven: Symphony No.8 in F
  • Handel: Water Music Suite
  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 'Emperor'
The concert was in Cadogan Hall, a beautiful concert hall in Chelsea. We had seats in the front row, so we could see every grimace on the faces of the musicians and every graceful stroke of their bows. We could even see the pianist's hands shaking as he waited for the conductor. It was an emotional performance; I was actually brought to tears by the end. The Bach concerto was the most impressive, technically. It was hard to believe he could play that many notes so quickly, even though I could see his hands. It was like magic. The real skill, though, was in making sense of the chaos. Bach's music is always very well ordered, but in the hands of a mediocre player it could sound like too many layers competing with each other. Van Bloss was able to pick out individual threads of the music and highlight them against the background of the rest. He was also able to draw out the emotion of the music within the steady, relentless tempo. A lot of classical music is transparently emotional with the help of exaggerated tempo changes to indicate mood, but Bach tends to move along at one pace for longer stretches of time, so any mood changes have to be coaxed out. I could be wrong about that, but that's the way I think about it. His music is more restricted in some ways, but that restriction can offer its own sort of freedom, just as a sonnet allows the poet to use its rule-bound structure to support an infinite variety of meanings.

Handel's Water Music, performed by the chamber orchestra without the piano, made me smile all over. When I was little, the only CD I remember my parents having was a classical sampler that included two pieces from the Water Music. I used to listen to the CD when I was reading, and the Water Music will, until my dying day, call up memories of reading the Horse and his Boy, hearing the hunting horns of the book echoed in the music.

The final piece, the Beethoven concerto, was the highlight of the concert for me. Whereas the pianist was able to tease the emotion out of even Bach's ordered measures, he seemed to revel in the exuberant mood swings of Beethoven. I loved the way the piano and the orchestra worked with each other, too. The orchestra seemed to rush upwards as the piano came in, leaving the piano buoyed up and able to soar above during the solo sections.

When the music ended, everyone jumped to their feet in the most natural standing ovation I've ever been a part of. Everyone in the hall was smiling and clapping and nodding their heads; we all felt like we had witnessed something very special. I hope Nick Van Bloss is back for many more concerts; he is incredibly talented. I feel very lucky to have seen him play on this occasion.

Two days later, we went to another performance, this time the London premiere of a new production of Waiting for Godot, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. I remember reading Waiting for Godot in tenth grade, and I liked it at the time, but that was partly just because I knew I was supposed to like it. I did get some of the humor, I think, but it was hard to follow, and I'm not sure how much I really got out of it. Seeing it performed, however, brought entirely new levels of meaning. The performance was fantastic. It was really cool to see and hear Gandalf and Professor Xavier, of course; I won't deny the allure of their celebrity status. But I only saw them as Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart when they first appeared. After a few minutes, they were Vladimir and Estragon only. I have never seen performances that were so seamless. They inhabited the characters fully but wore them lightly. I never felt like I was watching someone acting; I was just seeing a story played out in front of me. It was very natural. All of that was even more impressive considering how abstruse the content is. They made it seem believable, all the absurdity and redundancy. They even made it beautiful. It was the best play I've ever seen.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Easter 2009

Easter, for some reason, is a huge deal here, even though almost no one is religious anymore. This means that everyone gets a four-day weekend, about which the British actually are pretty religious. We took advantage of the long weekend last year by going camping in the Chilterns. It was just a quick train ride out to High Wycombe, where we picked up an Ordnance Survey map and food supplies for two days. Now you might think, Easter? Isn't that a little early in the year to go camping? And you would be right. But we decided to give it a go, anyways, and while it was chilly it was still fun. The weather was appropriately gray and drizzly, so we knew for sure we were in England. The scenery told us that, too. It was beautiful, all rolling green hills and tiny country lanes and sheep everywhere. We camped on a farm a 10-minute taxi ride away from the town. The farmers were very friendly, but even they thought we were a little crazy.

We walked to the nearest village on the first afternoon, to find an ATM so we could pay the nice farmers. We were mostly on little footpaths, but we were just off the edge of our map, so we couldn't quite tell where we were going. Along the way, we saw lots of families walking their dogs, and dozens of kites. Not the sort of kite you're thinking of, though; the bird. Apparently the Chilterns are a major bird refuge area. The red kites are particularly prevalent, and they are not shy about swooping down in front of you to capture a tasty morsel. Andrew and I saw one come out of nowhere to catch a small, furry thing right in the middle of the road. In the village we found some tea, like you do, grabbed our cash and headed back to the tent. We had already entered daylight savings time, so it stayed light late enough for us to play some card games and have our favorite camping dinner of hummus and bread. Once the sun went down we headed to the pub across the way, but we didn't have too much to drink because we wanted to get an early start the next day.

One good thing about sleeping in a cold, damp tent is that it gives you plenty of encouragement to get up in the morning. We got up and started what we hoped would be a nice, long day's walk. We were still off the map, but we were able to figure out the right direction so that we could eventually join up with the mapped area. The right direction, as it turned us out, was through a few little neighborhoods, across several muddy fields and in and out of a small forest. About halfway across the first of the muddy fields, I realized my cute little sneakers were not the best choice of footwear. They toughed it out, though.

Our initial destination was the village of West Wycombe, which was supposed to be picturesque. It was. We had a nice lunch at the pub, where I managed to clean off my shoes enough to be respectable, then we headed back out into the mud. Once we were clear of the village, we headed back uphill. We wanted to get to Hughenden Manor, which was once the country home of Benjamin Disraeli, the great Victorian prime minister. I didn't care that much about Disraeli himself, but it looked like a nice house, so we steered ourselves that way.

Let me tell you about our map. This was the first time we had tried to navigate using an Ordnance Survey map, a special series of highly detailed maps beloved of British walkers. We were not quite prepared for the level of detail, and we had a hard time getting used to the scale. There were so many paths that it was hard to tell where we were on the map, but we powered through and soon found our way into a grove of enormous, ancient elm trees. Everything was hushed, and we slowed down to enjoy the trees. They were probably the biggest trees we've seen in England. It looked like Sherwood Forest, or Lorien, or something in Narnia. I list all these simply because there are so few trees left in England that it's rare to see the sort of landscape that inspired the woody settings of English literature. I had seen hills and mountains, beaches and marshes, rocky outcroppings and quiet streams before, but this was my first real forest experience. I loved it.

But eventually the trees cleared out and we could see where we were on the map, which was not at all where we thought we were. We were having such a good time walking that we didn't mind having to walk further, and we ended up coming at Hughenden from a better viewpoint this way, anyways. We were on the wrong side of a hill, so we walked around, and up, passing smaller groves of trees and vast swarms of yellow daffodils along the way. We got up to the house in time for a cup of tea and a scone and a walk through the formal gardens, which were small but exquisite. Some day I want to have tiny hedges in my backyard in the shapes of Celtic knots, with bright tulips planted in between. Mmm.

It was mid-afternoon by this point, and we had just reached the farthest point of our planned walk, so we started to head back toward the farm. We walked through more of the glorious forest along the way and started to gain confidence with the map. I'm usually the more confident navigator, but Andrew was much better with the map that day. He guided us to the edge of the Hughenden estate and, after a couple hours, into a tiny village that must have belonged to the estate in years past. It had a gorgeous church that was playing host to a wedding. We could see the guests' hats over the hedge. They were playing terrible music and having a great time. The village was beautiful. All the buildings were at least 200 years old, and they had perfect little gardens, some pristine, some exuberant.

At the end of the village was a pub where we stopped to consult the map over a pint of cider. We were hoping to be able to find a cab to take us back to the farm, not because we were tired (although we were pretty tired) but because it was getting dark and we didn't want to walk down narrow country roads without a flashlight. As luck would have it, and has had it many times over the course of our travels, one of the locals overheard our predicament and offered us a ride. His name was Rodney Stewart, and he lived in the area. He was a real comedian. He teaches jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and he relished the role of tour guide, pointing out local landmarks on the way up to the farm. By the time we got there it was well and truly dark, and we were grateful not to be trudging along the side of the road. Instead, we dropped off our map and headed straight to the pub for dinner.

We ended up making some friends in the pub. A girl heard our accents and introduced herself as an American studying in Warwickshire who was visiting friends in the village. She was tickled to meet some of her countrymen in that tiny pub, and she invited us to join her friends at their table for card games and stories and a great time. We barely even noticed the cold when we went back to our tent, and before we knew it, it was morning and time to get back to High Wycombe and catch the train back home.

We had a great time camping, but we were also looking forward to getting back to civilization. Plus, we had an Easter dinner to make for four guests. The Kiwis were there, of course, and my friend Jennifer, from ballet, and her husband, Aaron, also joined us. Jennifer and Aaron were in London studying for the semester. I met Jennifer in ballet and we quickly discovered that not only were we both from America, but both from Florida, where we had both attended UF, majored in English, and greatly admired Dr Brantley. What a small world! She and Aaron were spending their final semester of UF Law School in London, and even though they had only been there a few months they had already discovered lots of cool restaurants and pubs in London. They were very happy to share. We had roast pork and vegetables for dinner, plus a cheese course courtesy of Jennifer and Aaron, and a lemon tart, I believe. It was all very springlike, a rebellious act in spite of the gray, chilly weather. The triumph of hope over circumstance. Perfect, in fact, for Easter.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Some Paris photos

Paris with my parents

In late March, my parents came to stay with us for a week. I worked from home the day they arrived so I could go pick them up from Victoria Station. Then I actually did work while they took a little nap, and we went out for a late lunch and a stroll along the high street. The first night, they got to meet the Kiwis, who joined us for a fun Indian feast down the road.

Andrew and I both had to work the next day, so Mommy and Daddy wandered around on their own. They checked out the Tower of London, among other sites, and when I got home from work they were already making dinner for us in our kitchen! What excellent houseguests :-)

The next morning we all got up early and took a cab to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar to Paris. It was a nice trip, and we got to see a bit of the countryside. When we got closer to Paris, things got much less picturesque. There was a shanty town built right up under the train tracks at one point, and some of the buildings on the outskirts of Paris looked they hadn't been cleaned up after World War II. It actually takes a while even when you arrive in Paris to get to the nice bits, but we made our way to the hotel without too much trouble and checked in. Andrew took the lead in most of our French conversations, and the hotel concierge gave him a good-natured teasing about travelling with the mother-in-law. We all smiled and nodded, then headed up to our rooms as soon as possible. The guy was really nice, but we didn't go to Paris to joke with French people. It was a beautiful little hotel, just five minutes or so from the Arc de Triomphe. James Joyce lived right around the corner for a few years in the 1920s. It was a lovely neighborhood.

After a short rest in the hotel, we headed out for a light lunch, then started the first of many long walks over the course of the weekend. We started out by walking down the Champs Elysses, then turned at some point and walked along the river. The weather was chilly, and we got rained on a little bit, but we were able to take shelter at bus stops during the short spurts of precipitation. We made it down to the Musee d'Orsay, but it was about to close for the day, so we found a cafe and had some tea and coffee, then headed back to the hotel.

That night was our special dinner in Paris. Andrew and I wanted to take my parents out for their anniversary, and I did a ton of research to find a suitable place. Chez L'Ami Jean did not disappoint. We were overdressed for what turned out not to be a particularly posh-looking restaurant, but the food made us forget the surroundings. We were packed in like sardines, but everyone there was friendly and happy, and we were, too. It was a Basque restaurant, and we started our meal with some sweet, nutty, salty Basque ham. Beyond that, we were a bit confused by the menu. There was very little in the way of English translation, which was exciting but challenging. We all ended up going a little outside our comfort zones. It was really fun to see Mommy and Daddy trying completely new things and loving some, not liking others, but enjoying the experience. I remember my starter involved smoked salmon and lots of garnishes, like chopped egg and herbs and olives. It was all stacked up like a Napoleon, and it was delicious. My main was a white fish on the bone, prepared very simply. What other dishes can I remember? Daddy had a soup that was described pretty much as just soup, but it was the most delicious soup I have ever tasted. I will remember the taste of that soup for the rest of my life. It probably had potato and leek, some garlic, lots of bacon, some herbs, but it was all one smooth, silky texture, with a few little garnishes floating on top. It was stunning. I know Mommy had veal for her main, which she wasn't completely thrilled with, but I think she was glad she had tried something new. All the mains were pretty simple, with no sides, but they brought out three jars of mashed vegetables for us all to share. These were spectacular. When I say vegetables, I really mean butter with a little bit of vegetable added for texture. There was a jar (kind of like a giant baby food jar) of mashed potato, one of carrot and one of celeriac. We licked each one of them clean; they were that good. By the end of all that, we were all pretty full but we were not about to miss out on dessert. Daddy and I each ordered a fruit-and-cream-and-cake sort of thing, but they brought me the wrong thing, which I realized only after I'd taken a bite. I explained that it was the wrong thing and the waiter went to pick it up to take it back to the kitchen, at which point Daddy made a funny little whimpering sound that was clear in any language: hey, we were eating that! So they brought my proper dessert and we kept the reject, too. Mommy and Andrew both ordered the rice pudding, which I had heard was the best in the world. All you people who wrote on your blogs that Chez L'Ami Jean makes the best rice pudding in the world, I salute you. You were absolutely right. After the soup, the fish, the veal, the butter-vegetables, the three other beautiful, delicious desserts, the rice pudding came like a gift from the angels. And those angels were generous, too! They brought a huge bowl of rice pudding, we're talking like two-quart capacity or something, with two little bowls for Mommy and Andrew to spoon their portions into, and a little bowl of some kind of orange-marmaladey sauce and a burnt caramel sort of sauce to pour on top. I can honestly say that if I had to choose just one dish to be the last thing I ever tasted, it might very well be this rice pudding. How can I describe it? It was not too sweet, more liquid than most rice puddings, with little chewy bits of rice but with everything sticking together in one delicious mass. It had lots of vanilla in it, and it was milky and comforting and perfect. After all that, we managed to fit out the door and walk around the corner to the Eiffel Tower, which was lit up even at midnight (it was a long dinner). We walked around the base of it and got to stand in the very middle and look up, because there were very few people still wandering around. I've seen the Eiffel Tower a few times, but it is still breathtakingly beautiful each time. Mommy and Daddy were very impressed, too, even more than they thought they would be. It was a perfect way to end our special evening.

The next day we went to Sunday Mass at Notre Dame, which was inspiring but also distracting, as Mass in big cathedrals often is. They used lots of incense, which I always love. The readings were in several different languages, which was a nice touch. After Mass, we walked around inside the cathedral and out. Then we made a quick detour to Shakespeare and Company, on the other side of the river, where I was finally able to buy a copy of the book Shakespeare and Company, by my beloved Sylvia Beach. Then we took off for an afternoon at Versailles.

This is where things got, um, interesting. I will start by saying that the first part was completely my fault. There were two or three different train stations in Versailles, but they were named for the stations that their lines go into in Paris rather than their locations in Versailles. This was not very clear on the map, so I thought we just needed to go to the central Versailles station, since we didn't want to be on the Left or Right Bank; we wanted to be in Versailles. So we bought our tickets, after a long battle with several different ticket vending machines, and went down into the station to wait. And wait. And wait. For like 45 minutes. And we needed a bathroom. And there wasn't one. We held on by walking up and down the platform repeatedly, holding on for the bathroom that would surely be on the train, since it was a commuter line. Finally, the train showed up and we got on. Oh, thank goodness, there's the bathroom. Wait, why won't the door open? Why is it jammed? WHY IN GOD'S NAME IS THE DOOR JAMMED? Well, at least it's only a 30-minute ride or so, right? That's what the guide book said it should be. This was when I started to realize I'd put us on the wrong train. We were going to Versailles, all right, but we were going the looooong way. Poor Mommy and Daddy. I thought they weren't going to make it, but they were so patient. We finally got to the station and found the bathroom, but it was a pay bathroom and we were out of change, so Andrew had to find an ATM, then find a shop to buy something to break the bills. Finally, finally, Mommy got in. She came out and the door was open, so Daddy went in, thinking, why pay again if the door is open? Oh dear. This, I was not prepared for. He went in and shut the door. About 10 seconds later we heard him start shouting and banging on the door. We had to fish around for more change to put in the coin slot to get the door open to let him out again, and he was dripping wet. When the door closed behind him, the lights had gone out and the bathroom had started disinfecting itself, and Daddy along with it. What a nightmare. But at least we were in Versailles. Or a mile away from it. Apparently we were supposed to go to the Left Bank Versailles station all along. My bad. So we walked, and we walked, and we got there and stood in line and tried to fend off the other grumpy tourists, some of whom were quite aggressive queue jumpers. Daddy and I decided it might be too early to start laughing about everything, but hey, at least we had made it to the palace in one piece. Once we got in, we did enjoy walking around the gardens, even though we got lost a few times. The palace was as lovely as ever, and no one got injured this time. I even got to wander around Marie Antoinette's model farm for a while with Andrew, while Mommy and Daddy were resting on a bench by a pond in a brief spell of sunshine. We were all a little calmer after that, and we had a nice, slow stroll back through the area around Versailles to the correct train station this time, which took us back to Paris, where we walked around some more and found an Italian restaurant near our hotel for dinner. The final indignity of the day came when our waiter spilled another table's red wine all over Daddy's khakis, and they charged us for a bottle of sparkling water, which Mommy and Daddy took back to the hotel to use to try to get out the stain. The good news is, I think they did get the stain out, eventually. I think we all slept really, really well that night.

The next morning we started fresh and walked down the Champs Elysses again, looking for breakfast. I always forget the French and their fussy, narrow ideas about breakfast. If you don't want a croissant and coffee, or if you want to eat at any time past about 9:00, you're out of luck. We ended up in a Nespresso cafe, where they promised us they had yogurt, but they didn't. But we at least got to sit for a few minutes, and I had a lovely breakfast of pastries and yummy bread with fancy jam. We continued down the Champs Elysses and into the Luxembourg Gardens, where Mommy bought a pretty Parisian painting and Andrew watched some gypsies at work trying to scam tourists with a trick involving a ring that they would slyly drop behind someone, pick up and offer to them, then try to get them to pay for it. We all really enjoyed the gardens, and the sun came out more than it had in the previous days. We made our way to the Louvre, where we had some lunch and wandered around, looking at the paintings and antiquities. I forgot how big the Louvre is. It's almost obscene. We all walked around together, then split up at some point and Andrew and I went through some of the galleries we hadn't seen before. We all regrouped later on and walked back to the hotel, stopping for picnic provisions along the way. Then it was back to the train and back to London.

The next day, the last full day of their trip, Mommy wasn't feeling well, so Daddy and Andrew and I (we had both taken the day off) went to lunch and walked around in Regents Park. Then Daddy went off to see Westminster Abbey and Andrew and I bought supplies for a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings. We had a fun final evening, even though Mommy didn't get to partake in the dinner. She still sat with us as we all talked about our adventures and misadventures over the last few days. We had to say goodbye early the next morning. It all went by much too quickly. We had some close calls, some bonding experiences, and some really nice times. Paris with my parents: tres magnifique!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Michelin star-cross'd lovers

One Friday night last February, Andrew and I had a drink with some of his colleagues and decided to find some place to have dinner and start our weekend off right. We walked up to Charlotte Street, which I had discovered was a restaurant mecca. We walked up the street to see what was still open (it was getting late) and what looked good. We stopped in front of a restaurant whose name I recognized, a French place, and decided to give it a try, so we went inside and asked if there was a table available. The hostess seemed surprised that we didn't have reservations, but they did have a table, so someone took our coats and someone else led us into the dining room. It was a beautiful space, and the food looked really tasty and well presented. French, in fact. But we started to notice that things were not quite normal as soon as we sat down. It was very quiet, for one thing, and the other diners were dressed up in a way that we weren't. After we were seated, someone brought a little dish of olives. Nice, we thought. Very nice, actually. Then someone came by with a basket of warm rolls. Lovely. We're in for a treat, we thought. Then someone else came by with a tray of butter. This was our first big tip-off. The butter girl was at least the fifth staff member we had seen, and we still hadn't received our menus, so none of them were waiters. And this was a tiny restaurant. And there was a butter girl. That's not normal. Nor is an offer of salted butters or unsalted butters from three or four different regions of France. We went for the salted butter from Brittany as the menus showed up. We looked at each other, then opened the menus. Yikes. Set menu. Minimum price per person 55 pounds, without dessert or wine. We looked back at each other in horror. We put our heads together and consulted in whispers. Then I got up nervously, found the hostess, and explained to her our mistake. She seemed embarrassed on our behalf but said it wasn't a problem; she would get our coats. Andrew, head down, scurried out of the dining room after me and we ran out onto the street. I have rarely been so humiliated. Only later did we find out that it was a two-Michelin star restaurant, one of the top five or ten in all of London. As we made our way up the street, we passed the menu, including prices, posted outside the restaurant. The moral of the story here, kids, is always look at the menu before you go into a restaurant. We did have some excellent - and cheap - Thai food, two doors down. But we knew it was cheap going in. Live and learn.

The experience did inspire us, though, to learn more about the Michelin star system. We discovered that we had already been to at least one Michelin starred restaurant: the River Cafe has one star. A one-star rating indicates that a restaurant is exceptional; two stars indicate an even higher level of quality. The three-star rating is very rare. There are only two restaurants in London with three stars, and only about eight or 10 with two stars. Andrew was apparently inspired, because for my birthday a few weeks later he took me to a two-star restaurant, the Square, for lunch, a Bib Gourmand (a separate Michelin rating system for "affordable" restaurants, ie no more than 28 pounds per dish) restaurant, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, for dinner, and a bed-and-breakfast with a one-star restaurant, West Stoke House, for the weekend.

Let's start with the lunch. He told me it was a two-star restaurant right before we went in, and I thought it was impressive that he had gotten us a table, but I was a little nervous, too, after our previous experience. It really was lovely, though, and, would you believe, it was miraculous food. We both had to go back to work afterwards, so we skipped wine, but we did order a bottle of sparkling water, a little luxury in its own way. We started with an amuse bouche that was a sort of potato and anchovy foam with a crispy wafer of potato, or if you want to be crass about it, a potato chip. It was light and savory and delicious. I don't know how they can fit that much flavor into one mouthful. For lunch, I started with a dish of scallops and leeks with all sorts of sauces strewn about the plate in an artistic way. I do remember one of the sauces being a vanilla and onion emulsion that felt like velvet and tasted like heaven. My main was lamb with pearl barley and braised lettuce. The lamb was so tender I could have eaten it with a spoon, but it retained a nice, toothsome texture. The barley and lettuce were sweet and succulent, and it was all held together with a thick, creamy broth. It was the most comforting dish I've ever tasted. It made me pine for a long-forgotten childhood, except the childhood was not mine; it was a cosseted little Edwardian girl's childhood populated by beloved nannies and taking place in spotless nurseries with frilly pinafores and floppy hair bows. It was everything lovely about old England on a plate.

After a few hours of work that mostly consisted of my prancing about in my new dress and serving birthday cake to my colleagues, I went to the salon for a hair cut and met Andrew at home for round two of the eating extravaganza that was my birthday. I put on another new dress and did my makeup, then we enjoyed a glass of champagne and walked to Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, which is just a few minutes' walk away from our flat. You wouldn't think I could possibly eat again, but I made room tell you the truth, I can't remember exactly what I had. We've been back a few times since, and I'll list what I can remember here. Everything we've ever had there has been marvelous, but almost as nice as the food is the atmosphere. It's dressed up but completely comfortable. You're never made to feel nervous or anxious, just well taken care of. So much so that you don't necessarily remember all the ingredients in each dish, you just remember what a great time you had. But let's see. We've had a few different aperitifs de maison, usually champagne with something sweet and a dash of something bitter, perfect pre-dinner warmups. The one we had on my birthday had a splash of Pimm's winter liqueur, we found out from the bartender. It was cool and refreshing and bracing and warming all at the same time. Starters we've loved over the past year include steak tartare, mackerel tartare, lasagne of Dorset crab, heirloom tomato salad, and soupe de poissons. Mains have included steak bordelaise, game stew, Confit duck with black pudding and salade Lyonnais, a beautiful roasted winter vegetable pie, sea bream, and lamb chops with perfect vegetables. We've eaten a lot of good food in the past year! I do remember the dessert we had on my birthday, because it was one I had heard of before but never seen: baba au rhum. We performed a play in tenth grade that included a dinner party featuring baba au rhum, and I had never understood what it was. What it is, apparently, is a sort of sweet, raisin-studded pastry that is doused in rum and set on fire. Oh, and served with whipped cream. It was yummy, and dangerous! Perfect birthday fun. The fact that I can't remember the exact menu of that night aside from subsequent visits just goes to show what a comfortable, wonderful place it is. It's my favorite London restaurant, and I can't wait to go back again.

After a full day of eating, I was ready for a day of fasting, which was good, because Andrew's big birthday present to me was a weekend in the country that involved even more eating. On Friday, after work, we took the train to Chichester and took a cab to West Stoke House, which is a restaurant with rooms (is this an English thing only? I love the concept). We checked in and were shown up to our room, which was spacious, beautiful in an old English country house sort of way, and very comfortable. Then we popped downstairs for some coffee. The reception area was really a living room, with lots of comfy couches and beautiful paintings and a cabinet with movies that you can take up to your room. The staff members were really friendly but in a formal way that made us feel like VIPs. Yet, just like at Galvin, even though everything was the best it could be, everything was also completely relaxed and easygoing. Lovely.

On Saturday, after a fantastic English breakfast, we walked down to a nearby fishing village on the English channel and marveled at the enormous swans swimming in the harbor. They were actually kind of scary up close. You could see exactly how strong their necks and wings were. We admired them from a safe distance. The village also had a pretty little church, with lots of graves in the churchyard with epitaphs about drownings and failed rescues. We decided to take a train to Arundel, about 30 minutes east, to see the castle there. It was very impressive, but we only got to see it from the outside because it was still closed for the winter. I would like to go back and see the inside. It is still occupied by the family that has owned it for hundreds of years. The head of the family would be very high up in the royal succession, but the family has always been Catholic, even through the reformation and all the related persecutions afterwards. Some of their ancestors were even imprisoned in the Tower of London at some point, but they have maintained their aristocratic status to this day. Fascinating. The town of Arundel is gorgeous. It's built up on a hill, and there are lots of little, winding roads and narrow passageways with hidden shops and cafes. We had a nice, blessedly light, lunch, then found a neat little art shop where we bought two Aubrey Beardsley prints, one of a Pierrot-type character in a library and the other of a satyr reading to a lady in a garden. We walked around the castle and its extensive grounds and saw towers and follies and lakes and birds and sheep and daffodils. It was wonderful. Then we took the train back to Chichester and got another cab back to West Stoke House to relax and get ready for dinner.

We started in the lounge area, where other guests were also waiting with drinks and menus. Soon afterwards, we were ushered into a beautiful dining room with gauzy curtains and robin's-egg blue walls and more of the beautiful, colorful, abstract paintings we had seen in the lounge the night before. The whole house was decorated in a similar fashion. The historical architectural details had been maintained and highlighted, but with subtle colors. The way the simple lines of the building were set off by the more energetic shapes in the paintings made for a very modern look.

Our dinner began with an amuse bouche of pea soup with mint, if I remember correctly. I had fish for both courses, first a light white fish served with thinly sliced cucumber and dill, then a meatier fish served with pea shoots and tiny morel mushrooms. It was all delicious and flavorful and, for me one of the most interesting aspects of fine dining, the sort of thing I could never make at home. The best part of the meal, though, was the dessert. We shared a trio of rhubarb desserts. There was a tiny rhubarb tart, a tiny rhubarb crisp, and a tiny rhubarb mousse. They were exquisite. I felt like Alice in Wonderland when she's grown too big. It was like eating enchanted dolls' food. And it taught me an important lesson: I love rhubarb!

After enjoying our coffee and petit fours in the lounge after dinner, we went back up to our room to enjoy some wine Andrew had sneakily sent up while we were eating dinner and watch Lost in Translation in our jammies. The next morning, after breakfast, we had time for a walk along the Sussex Downs with spectacular views, and then it was back on the train and back to London. It was the best birthday of my life.

Christmas and New Year's 2008-09

Like all holiday seasons, this one went by in a flash. We both had work Christmas parties that fell a little flat, but we also had a Christmas party for just us and the Kiwis, and that was wonderful. We had a roast with all the British trimmings, and stilton with walnuts and port for dessert. This is one British tradition I plan on taking home. Stilton is my favorite blue cheese. Especially Stichelton, which is a new edition, so to speak.

But the main Christmas action was in Florida, obviously. We flew into Orlando and hung out with Nicholas and Katie. We also got to see Jenni, who flew into Orlando for her winter break and who we hadn't seen in four years! It was great to catch up with her and hear all about her dissertation on electricity and early 20th century American literature. I'm so glad she's enjoying her program. She's going to be one hell of a professor.

The next day, Andrew rented a car - which turned out by necessity to be a convertible - and drove back up to Tallahassee, and I rode with Nicholas and Katie over to St Pete, where we had a bridal shower to attend. We all - Bryan, Christina, Nicholas, Katie, Mommy, Daddy, and I - went to a fantastic Greek restaurant for dinner and had a feast of meze, pastitsio, moussaka, spanakopita, etc. and watched, bemusedly, a semi-impromptu belly-dancing performance. Good times.

Christmas in Tallahassee was, well, Christmas in Tallahassee. All the usual friends, the usual foods, the usual fun, the usual puppies, minus Harry. But he was there in spirit, and I got to pay my respects at his grave for the first time. He'll always be my Christmas puppy.

All too soon, we had to fly back to London, where we had a week of "working" - me at home and Andrew in an empty office. Then it was New Year's Eve. The Kiwis were travelling, so Andrew and I made a bunch of tasty snacks and drinks and played with our Christmas presents, including hours of Guitar Hero. So much Guitar Hero, in fact, that we missed the actual stroke of midnight, although our year-straddling performance did end, on screen, with fireworks. Aww.

Thanksgiving and anniversary 2008

In 2008 we celebrated Thanksgiving and our fourth wedding anniversary on the same day. Well actually, we celebrated Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving and had our big anniversary the next day, but it was all one big, happy party to us.

For Thanksgiving, we picked up all our supplies from the farmers' market the Sunday before. This meant that we had a giant turkey sitting in our fridge for several days. He made himself right at home, wrapped loosely in butcher's paper to keep the skin dry so it would get nice and crispy. The Kiwis joined us for our feast. It was their first Thanksgiving ever, and I think they really enjoyed the experience. We had to work during the day and cook everything in the early evening, but it worked well. We had the full spread: turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, carrots, rolls, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and apple pies with whipped cream. Everything was absolutely delicious. It was funny going into Waitrose the days before the big feast. You could really tell that there are a lot of Americans in the neighborhood. Just like at home, the chicken stock was sold out, it was hard to find thyme and sage, and the canned pumpkin and jarred cranberry sauce they had put out in special displays was completely ransacked. It was good to know that so many people were celebrating my favorite holiday.

The next day we went back to work reluctantly, then went out for feast number two, to celebrate our anniversary. We had reservations at the River Cafe, a perennially popular and extremely influential Italian restaurant on the river in Hammersmith, or Fulham or something. It was hard to find. It was also really far away, or seemed like it. We got dressed as soon as we got home from work and then had to hop on the tube, then another tube, then walk for about 20 minutes, first the wrong way then the right way. I actually took off my heels at one point because my feet were killing me. But we got there eventually and took our table.

Let me pause here to tell you about my outfit for the evening. I have lots of pretty dresses. They are a weakness of mine. But I wanted something really special to wear for this dinner. I had found a cool skirt at a designer sample sale earlier in the year, and I spent about a month leading up to our anniversary trying to find a top to wear with it. I've never spent so much time trying to put together an outfit, even for our wedding. But I looked fantastic. There, I said it. No false modesty. The skirt is made of a shiny black material, kind of like taffeta. It looks slightly Victorian, gathered all over so it has a tiered effect. It makes a statement. Amy helped me finally find a top to go with it: a sheer ivory blouse with black lace insets and a high neck. With black stockings and high heels, it was a striking ensemble. I felt glamorous and beautiful and romantic.

I'll get to the food in a minute. It certainly deserves its own paragraph. But first let me tell you about my CELEBRITY SIGHTING. Andrew and I had just been seated and were looking over the menu, sipping our glasses of prosecco, and checking out the room and the other diners. I looked back at Andrew to give him a happy smile, when I noticed another party being seated. "Whoa, Andrew. That guy looks exactly like Wes Anderson. He's even wearing a Wes Anderson jacket. Wait a minute, no, that is Wes Anderson!" It was, too. We spent a few flurried minutes slyly looking at his table to see if it really was him and decided it must be. I got up to find the bathroom, and on my way back I stopped at his table. I don't know if I should have, or what the protocol was, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I walked up and said, "I'm really sorry to interrupt your conversation, but are you Wes Anderson?" "Why, yes I am." "Oh my goodness, it's so nice to meet you. You've made all my favorite movies. You're, like, my hero." Eloquent, don't you think? Anyways, he was really nice and friendly, and his dining companions smiled at me, and he asked why I was there and waved at Andrew and wished us a happy anniversary. He had a good, firm handshake, too. I smiled and said thanks and walked back to the table beaming. So. Exciting. I now know that he must have been in London making Fantastic Mr Fox, which turned out brilliantly. What a guy.

Now, on to the food. This was almost a year and a half ago, so I don't think I can remember all the details exactly, but I do remember prosecco and olives to begin with. I remember a lemony crab crostini starter on my side and perhaps a mozzarella salad on Andrew's side. Then roast lamb with rosemary and anchovies and creamy cranberry beans for me and roast sea bass and fennel for Andrew. For dessert, the infamous chocolate nemesis, of which all flourless chocolate tarts are mere shadows. All the flavors were clean and crisp and delicious in a really comforting, subtle, easy way. The fact that London is such a foodie paradise today is due in some part to the River Cafe and its pioneering chefs, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray (RIP). Their food couldn't but make you happy. It was like eating a hug. Which made it perfect fare for two love birds celebrating four beautiful years together. We had a lovely time, and after all the food and wine and vin santo, we caught a cab back home to save my feet. It was an elegant, entertaining, exciting evening. A perfect anniversary.

Ahh, the Farmers' Market

There are many wonderful things about living in Marylebone. Our flat is fantastic, we're within walking distance of almost everywhere we might want to go, we have easy access to Hyde and Regents Parks, the high street is charming and full of fun window shopping, we have good transport links, there are dozens of incredible restaurants within 15 minutes, the list goes on. But the absolute best thing about living here is the farmers' market that takes place every Sunday. Ever since we moved in, I would guess we've only missed the Sunday market about six to eight times, and those times were only when we were out of town. We plan our weekends around the market. We've even been known to scurry back to town from a weekend trip just so we could make it to the market.

This might sound a bit overblown, but let me tell you, this is the best farmers' market I've ever seen. The vendors all come from within 50 miles of London, so everything is local and fresh, and you might be surprised to see everything that can be harvested in such a small area. There are seafood carts, meat and poultry stands, cheese makers, bakers, mushroom foragers, a stall that sells nothing but potatoes, and about a half dozen tables selling all sorts of fruits and vegetables. There are even vendors that sell locally made oil and darn tasty apple cider. The market runs every Sunday of the year (except maybe at Christmas), rain or snow or wind or shine. And it's always packed with customers. We've had some pretty nasty weather this winter, but even at the worst of it, there have been hordes of people at the farmers' market. It restores my faith in humanity.

It also feeds me, very well. The produce is incredible. The best bacon and sausages. The freshest vegetables and herbs. The tastiest mushrooms. And don't get me started on the potatoes. You may think you know potatoes, but you do not truly understand them until you taste the ones from our farmers' market. The farmer is the nicest guy, and he always gives us extra potatoes so we don't go hungry. Our poultry guy is great, too, and he has provided us with many a delicious chicken for roasting, a few ducks for braising, and two glorious Thanksgiving turkeys. There's a shy but friendly guy who sells us really good greens, another shy but friendly guy who has the best squash. Then there's the jovial cockney who oversees bins and bins of carrots and onions and cabbages. There's the tweed-clad guy who sells sausages alongside good-natured complaints about the bloody weather. There's the baker from California. It feels good buying food from friends rather than the supermarket.

Every Sunday we follow the same schedule. The market runs from 10 to 2, so we have time for a morning coffee and croissant down the street while we make our menu and shopping list for the week. Then we walk to the market, our two green Publix shopping bags on our shoulders, and get everything we can from the market. Then maybe a stop at the butcher's for eggs (they have brighter yolks than the ones at the market) and sometimes the cheese shop. Finally, Waitrose, where we usually only have to buy a few dry goods, some dairy, cleaning products, etc. We usually manage to get at least half our groceries, and almost all of our produce, from the market. We feel really good about this setup, because we're buying locally, we're supporting local farmers, we're getting fresher, cheaper, better produce, and we're eating really healthfully. It's a beautiful cycle. And it's always, always a treat, even in the dead of winter.

That being said, I am looking forward to spring and summer produce. First will be asparagus and peas in the pod. Then new potatoes and soft herbs. Then lettuces and radishes and strawberries. Then artichokes and broad beans. Then tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers and fennel and zucchini. Then plums and blackberries and raspberries. In the fall, different kinds of potatoes, apples, squashes of every shape, size, and color. Leeks. Jerusalem artichokes. Parsnips. Mushrooms. Game. Every week is slightly different, and every week is delicious. Well done, farmers.