Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Having a mid-week crisis

5am. Am woken by daughter #3 coughing. Lie there, staring at the ceiling in the half light, wondering anxiously why it is that she sounds like a Victorian child who has grown up in a damp workhouse and spent all her life climbing chimneys, when in fact she is a pampered product of twenty-first century comforts who spends her life lounging in front of the TV and combing the garden for ladybirds to keep in boxes. Conclude this must somehow reflect on my parenting, which reminds me of the imminent necessity of putting together three packed lunches. This in turn leads to gloomy musing on the eternal argument between the senior members of our household (me and Him) and the daughters, which can be summed up in two words: Cheese Strings.

5.30am. Gloomy musing interrupted by the alarm clock (which, being nothing like a real princess, I keep stuffed under my pillow) Get wearily out of bed and trail downstairs. Ruby is asleep on my laptop, and since I feel guilty enough already about being a terrible mother I do not turf her off, but instead switch the oven on and pull out sticky, flour-dusted copy of Nigella's Domestic Goddess book.

5.40am. Make tea.

5.50am. Make scones.

6am. Kitchen is filled, not with homely, comforting smell of baking, but foul, sour fug of last Saturday night's roast lamb from the disgustingly filthy oven. Sniffing disdainfully, Ruby rises from the laptop and takes herself fastidiously outside into glorious, damp morning for fresh air. Follow her, and am spellbound by utter perfection of the misty garden, complete with icing-sugar pink apple and cherry blossom, and exquisite, dew-frosted grass. Briefly consider going to wake the children up to share the magic (surely what a proper wholesome mother would do) but am able to imagine all too vividly the scorn with which this would be greeted by daughter #1, so desist. Go back into the kitchen for more cups of tea.

6.05am. Discover fug in kitchen to have thickened, due to blackened, burning scones.

6.10am. Make more scones.

6.25am. Take perfect, golden, unburned scones from oven. Experience moment of extreme satisfaction.

6.30am. Eat one scone, hot, with pools of melting butter.

6.33am. Eat another scone, with raspberry jam.

6.36am. Notice misshapen scone, which spoils beautiful WI style symmetry of batch. Eat it quickly, on its own.

6.38am. Experience moment of extreme guilt.

6.40am. Survey kitchen, taking in flour-strewn surfaces, chaos of bowls and wooden spoons lying greasily in the sink, spilt milk soaking into letter to be returned to school. Feel very tired. Wish I had stayed in bed.

7am. Am just finishing cleaning entire kitchen (though floor still suspiciously crunchy underfoot) when He appears, sniffs, and asks why I am cooking sausages. Retreat, with admirable dignity under the circumstances, preferring to let lovely plate of scones speak on my behalf.

8am. Offer lovely scone to daughter #1 for her lunchbox. She looks pained. 'No thanks. It's embarrassing. Can't you just buy cheese strings?'

8.15am Offer lovely scone to daughter #3. She accepts enthusiastically, and requests jam and butter to accompany it. Ask if she would also like smoked salmon sandwiches cut into tiny triangles and a china cup and saucer for her water, but discover irony is lost on her as she considers this matter carefully before politely declining. We turn our attention to the matter of a container for the butter, and an extremely depressing ten minutes ensue during which daughter #3 empties the entire contents of the cupboard where ex-ice cream tubs are pointlessly kept, virtually disappearing beneath a landslide of plastic lids and pots. Impossible to match anything up. Am still in pyjamas. Feel in need of vodka with breakfast, but am just drinking fourth pot of tea of the day when daughter #3 discovers large tub and lid that seem to belong together. Put small quantity of butter in the bottom and discover it won't fit into lunchbox.

8.55am. Drop children at school, and head to Sainsburys to replenish supplies of milk and flour depleted by the morning's double scone effort.

9.15am. Linger wistfully in front of cheese strings...

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The temperature's rising...

Here in the UK at the moment we're enjoying a) a spell of unusually gorgeous weather, and b) a delicious daily fix of Marco Pierre White in the new series of Hell's kitchen-- two things which are entirely unrelated, but which together are combining to bring a warm glow ( internal and external) to my life. Most pleasing. As revealed last week, in the end MPW didn't make it as the face of Lorenzo, largely because he's way too distinctly the face of himself and I found it impossible to impose a different character and identity upon him. He's as mad as a bicycle, and distinctly battered-looking these days, but it's lovely to watch him being all macho and brutish and rude every night. I'm tempted to try to book a table at the restaurant just so I could gaze close-up at the larger-than-life prints on the walls of Bob Carlos Clarke's iconic photos of him from the White Heat book and shiver in the blast of his blistering fury. I'd be far too excited to eat, which, post-Easter, would only be a good thing.

Anyway, last night the contestants had to make a dish that summed up their childhood-- cue sentimental sniffles all round the TV kitchen, and much discussion on our sofa about nostalgia food. For me the most evocative food from my long lost youth would definitely be what we called 'cowboy toast'-- white bread dipped in beaten egg, fried until it's golden and fluffy (dripping with artery-clogging cholesterol) and eaten sprinkled with (more coronary-inducing) salt and tomato ketchup. This was what my lovely stepmother often made us on Sunday evenings just before we went back to my mum's house after spending the weekend at my dad's, and it brings back slightly bittersweet, melancholy feelings of things ending; of packing bags and being in transit. For Him, childhood food memories were largely of the glorious age of packaged 1970s delicacies, such as Arctic Roll and Angel Delight, and those deeply unpleasant meat pies that came in tins. No wonder he became a strict vegetarian when he was 16.

For my own daughters, their early years can be summed up by the fairy cake. We've talked about my fairy cake baking habit/obsession before, and I even helpfully/boringly supplied a recipe which will produce 18 delicate, cherry-topped offerings that can be eaten in a couple of mouthfuls. However, it hasn't escaped my notice that these modest staples of my girls' formative years are already looking frighteningly retro, and that today's fairy cakes are bigger, blowsier, and more glamorous, decadent and delicious than anything to come from my own oven so far... Take these, for example, which He and I brought home from a rare child-free day scouring the antique markets of Stafforshire/Derbyshire on Saturday. (The arm in the corner of the picture belongs to daughter #3 who was doing a wild dance of excitement at the prospect of getting her hands on the cake with the chocolate buttons on the top...) I can see I'm going to have to up my fairy cake game.

So, what foods evoke childhood for you? Are the memories happy or sad, and are they things that you still eat today? (Think I might make cowboy toast for lunch...)

Thursday, 16 April 2009

I'm back... sort of....

Have been struggling to rouse myself from my easter-egg induced coma for a couple of days and get around to posting, but routine is out of the window, the computer has been hijacked by a crowd of pyjama-clad bandits with unbrushed hair and chocolate-smeared faces and somehow I lack the energy to reclaim it. Anyway, having taken one look at the chaos of scattered cereal and nutella smeared on every surface of the kitchen this morning, I've grabbed a pot of tea and my laptop and retreated to the sanctuary of my bed for a quick catch up.

So, Paris. Lovely, although it would, admittedly, have been even better if I'd brushed up beforehand on how to say 'Daughter #1's tonsils have swollen to the size of Brussels sprouts and are covered with white spots and slime.' Aside from that, the current pitiful state of the British pound made the whole thing eye-wateringly expensive (watching my husband pay almost as much for a cardboard cup of hot water and a separate tea bag for me in the Jardin des Tuileries as he had for a glass of champagne in St Pancras's glorious champagne bar was something of a low point) but the sun shone and the city was beautiful and the girls were thrilled by Notre Dame, and the Van Goghs in the Musee d'Orsay and eating at a pavement cafe after dark. I made a special pilgrimmage to stand outside The Hotel Crillon, where Orlando and Rachel didn't quite get it together, imagined Olivier striding away from the Louvre having just left La Dame de la Croix, and gazed discreetly at beautiful Parisian men (and there are many) for future inspiration. Professional to the end, that's me.

The morning after we got home I marched daughter #1 off to the doctors for antibiotics, and sent her back to bed to recuperate ahead of a long weekend of late nights and chocolate with the cousins while I drafted the other two into Operation Emergency Spring Clean. The sudden sunshine had cruelly highlighted the need for this, and rushing upstairs to make up the bed in my office-that-doubles-as-a-spare-room I was horrified to discover three mugs growing fascinating biological cultures in the manner of petrie dishes, and several landfill sites-worth of chocolate wrappers and odd bits of paper with random phrases scribbled onto them that had been left in the wake of the last deadline. Thankfully I had just unpinned the last pictures of Keanu Reeves (who, in the end, did sterling service as the face of Lorenzo Cavalleri, my Italian film director hero) was lugging the final bags of rubbish down the stairs when everyone arrived.

After that things are a haze of cake (supplied by my lovely sister in law) wine (supplied by the Sainsbury's delivery man) and chocolate (supplied by the easter bunny). At some point we turned our attention to planning this year's family Olympics . Brother #1, who is the official organiser of the games decided that, in a bid to moderate the excessive alpha-competitiveness that is rife amongst the male contingent in our family, all teams should include a junior member and the games should reflect this. This is good news. Left to themselves the men would probably opt for uber-macho events like base-jumping and tractor-mower racing, so as we watched the children playing in the garden the idea of including a hula-hoop element to the competition initially seemed cool.

Until we tried it for ourselves.

Apparently adults are utterly physically unsuited to hula-ing. Hilarious hula-hoop masterclass by the children followed (all of them maestros-- able to keep three hoops going while walking around the garden, playing catch and seemingly without moving their hips at all) but there was absolutely nothing remotely funny about waking up the next morning in such an agony of stiffness that it was almost impossible to get out of bed.

Three days later it still hurts. Any alternative suggestions to the hula-hoop event would be gratefully received.

Friday, 3 April 2009


We leave tomorrow. It's been booked for ages-- long enough for it to have seemed so distant that there was no point in even beginning to think about it or make any plans. In the meantime I've been enjoying vague fantasies about languishing in the sunshine drinking hot chocolate at pavement cafes with the Eiffel Tower in the background (which reminds me of the cover of Taken for Revenge Bedded for Pleasure, and the bloke thereon, but that's a whole different kind of fantasy altogether) and skipping out for croissants in the early morning, dressed in nothing but a glamorous and quintessentially Parisian trenchcoat. This is the legacy left by watching the 80s TV mini-series Mistral's Daughter (based on Judith Krantz's bonkbuster bestseller) at a very impressionable age, and being deeply struck by the scene where Stephanie Powers (!) slips out of the Montmartre love-nest she's sharing with Timothy Dalton to get breakfast, naked except for his coat. (A tiny part of it is about 5 mins 43 seconds into this clip. Oh, the nostalgic joys of youtube.)

Looking back I can see now that all of my teenage ambitions were influenced to an unhealthy degree by the 80s mini-series phenomenon. I desperately wanted to be carried off for a few days of sinful pleasure by a priest (The Thorn Birds), longed to be sent to a strict Swiss finishing school (Lace), and what naughty Abby Green refers to as my 'blood obsession' can probably be traced back to North and South (the original swashbuckling, trashy TV series set in the American civil war, not the tastefully restrained Richard Armitage/Elizabeth Gaskell adaptation of recent years) which featured a succession of 80s hunks with big hair and tight trousers, gleaming with sweat and liberally splattered with the red stuff. * sigh* They just don't make TV like that anymore do they? Perhaps it's just as well.

Anyway-- will report back when we return; however, expect more in the way of touristy queueing for ice cream and the Mona Lisa than carefree running through early morning streets, semi-clad. Such is life.