26 May 2010

One trick pony

Jamie. Nigella. Delia. Tovey. I’m scanning the shelves for inspiration.

We’ve got the rellies coming down from Barrow tomorrow to join us for our 1st wedding anniversary weekend. They will be our very first house guests in our new home!

I’m thrilled to bits ... and panicked beyond belief. It will be my first time playing “hostess” to the family. More than anything, I want to get it “right.”

I rather wisely gave myself a bit of “dress rehearsal” last month, by inviting the Vicar, His Wife, Their Son and few other special friends for a “House Blessing” followed by lunch. Our friends, Julia and Robert, who moved away in January, came from Rutland to join us, and did our much beloved Sally.

It was a gorgeous day, the English weather did its part, and cooperated beautifully. We were able to have champers outside on the patio before the Blessing and lunch.

The Vicar led us all round the house for a traditional house blessing ceremony. To be sure, I’m one of those people for whom ritual and liturgy are very important. Ritual is of course the outward sign and expression of faith, physicalising the internal and invisible.

We all found the ceremony deeply moving, it was truly lovely as we progressed from room to room, celebrating the love and grace that has made this place our home.

After the little service, we had lunch. I was surprisingly calm, and well-prepared. The importance of planning, as the gurus do say! And, I actually enjoyed myself and didn’t feel harassed or overwhelmed.

This was due largely to the best piece of hostess advice I’ve come across recently:

Don't be afraid to be a 'one trick pony'.

Meaning, develop a meal that you do really well; one that you feel truly comfortable and confident creating. Then, roll it out again and again, and wow your guests every time.

Obviously, in time one would need to add more meals/dishes to your menu arsenal, if you are having the same guests over and over, but initially, what a super strategy!

And that is precisely how I approached the Blessing Lunch. Keep it simple. Stick with what you know.

So...my menu that day was Proscuitto and melon for starters; followed by Parmesan & parsley-crusted salmon, served with baby new potatoes and steamed asparagus, with a parmesan sauce. Lovely! Thank you BBC Good Food Guide.

The Vicar is a “crumble” fan, so for "pudding" I did a mixed berry crumble for him; and Sally brought along a gorgeous Sherry Trifle. Splendid.

Perhaps, leaving Jamie, Nigella and Delia aside once again, I should follow my own advice and continue in this vein for this weekend.

Though, I think I might branch out and tweak the BBC Good Food recipe slightly by using trout instead of salmon…

19 May 2010

A very Jane Austen day

"My dear Cassandra, have you remembered to collect pieces for the Patchwork? -- We are now at a standstill." 
- Jane Austen, a letter to her sister, Cassandra, dated May 1811
I relish my days off, when I'm not racing around Charlecote Park, or sweating out an submission deadline -- staring blankly at my computer screen awaiting inspiration for my monthly column to strike! (O, for a muse of fire...)

Today was an exquisite "play day".  The sun shining brightly and warmly (!) late into the afternoon. This morning, after taking Lucy for a short walk, watering the garden and speaking persuasively to my temperamental rose bushes, and I sat in one of our new patio chairs and listened to the sound of starlings screeching and chattering boisterously over head.

(We have new neighbours -- a growing family of starlings have built a nest in our roof, right above our bedroom window. They wake us with early each morning with a racuous dawn chorus!)

On these sort of days, I pursue simple pleasures, and today I had the joy of finishing a patchwork quilt I have been working for years! It has been so long, I cannot recall when I first started this project, precisely. 2004? 2005? 2003? Goodness knows.

One thing is for certain, I did not quilt while I was living in NYC. There are quilters and knitters in New York, no doubt, but the City just never inspired that kind of vibe in me. I need the quiet, and sounds of nature spur me on.

Jane Austen was a keen quilter (amongst other things) and she relished her pursuit of this oh-so feminine art.

Here's a picture of a quilt she created in 1811. Her quilt, along with other pieces of her surviving needlework, is house at Chawton House, the Jane Austen museum in Hampshire:

Jane Austen's quilt

I'd like to think that Jane Austen would have applauded my very modest efforts: a two fabric, simple block patchwork.

I'm a long way off attaining her level of ability. Her quilt is a complex, diamond-shaped maze of 64 different fabrics! 

Completed all by hand -- no electricity, remember!


p.s. A close-up of my quilt pattern...

06 May 2010

Sense and Sensibility

The DEB exercising his democratic right, this morning, at Barford Village Hall

Today, Britons go to the polls to vote in what is being heralded as the most significant General Election in the nation's history. As an active thinker, and concerned recent resident, I am saddened by that fact that I cannot contribute to the outcome. 

I have always been a firm believer in voting, even though, as a French friend once advised me: 

"No matter who you vote for, the Government always wins." 

That may be true, but I still think that it is important that one offers input into the process, especially in close contests, every vote matters truly.

I have had the fortune of observing the current electoral season in Britain as an engaged observer; not entirely objective, or outside the frame, as I will also have to live with the result.

In the process I have discovered some fascinating points about Britain, and myself.

First: How people vote

I have always admired the way in which British politics is more focussed on local needs and interests. In other words, a Briton living in Lichfield may hate Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, but love his/her local MP, who has done a great deal for the local community and their concerns -- and who happens to be a member of Labour.

So, while that person may prefer another party's leader, they may chose to stick with the great representative they have had. The vote, as I perceived it, means in theory each person is voting for the best MP for their area, regardless of party ties, and not the party itself, or the party's leader. 

It does seem to work this way in practice as well. For example, no one living outside the constituencies that Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg represent will be voting for them directly. 

This is very different from American politics where everything is driven by the front runners of each party, and the vote that is cast for or against them exclusively. 

Second: Time frame

It's funny to hear people here complaining about the length of the campaign season. 

"Golly, I'll be so glad when this is all over, no matter who wins, I'm just so sick of it all," a friend said recently. 

I was gobsmacked. She should try living in the USA where we are bombarded and overwhelmed by TV ads, posters, telethons, speeches, debates, delegates, door-to-door campaigners, appearances, jangling and gutter-sniping for months and months on end. 

By comparison, the British process is so much more civil, less "insane" and more, well, ...calm.

I remember how frightening it was to watch the meteoric rise of Sarah Palin and some of the "Hate Fest" antics that surrounded her vice-presidential campaigning. Perhaps, if the US Presidential electoral process was more akin to the British, 4 week, 'short, sharp and shocked' approach, there would be less time for such negative theatrics. Less of a need to do something, anything to sustain the momentum.

Another "calming" factor in British elections is what seems to be an overall lack of a need for the competing parties to appear utterly diametrically opposed. 

It was quite refreshing to witness actual points of agreement among the parties during the leaders' debates. With Gordon Brown unwittingly delivering the Liberal Democrats their new mantra: "I agree with Nick."

In America, this would never happen. 

In our unrelenting two-party system, things are black and white, with no shades of gray. It's Left or Right, Right or Wrong. It always has to be a cat fight.

This has spawned a sort of electoral short-hand, wherein people think they can surmise your ethics and morals by the party you support. e.g., Republican? Then you must be a illiterate, gun-totting, evangelical, homo-phobe. Democrat? You must be an over-educated, baby-killing, feminist, homosexual. 


Perhaps, it is a need for simplicity, or a rather a disdain for political and/or philosophical complexity that has led to this impasse in American politics, where we get caught up in the fervour of "issue" based voting and campaigning.

What a reprieve, then, not to find this in Britain; and to hear politicians debate and discuss the real challenges and situations that will face this nation for years to come.

Another thing...Nick Clegg is an Atheist. That, too, would never, ever happen in the United States. 

He'd be eaten alive.

One sad development in the British electoral process: this election season has heralded a new-found emphasis on the party leaders as individuals and their "performance skills" in televised debating. Nick Clegg's sudden spark changed everything, and I'm not sure it is for the best.

To be sure, I am a firm believer that a national leader should be well-spoken, articulate, well-groomed, polished, etc. & etc. However, I am also a believer in style with substance. Comparisons between Mr. Clegg and Mr. Obama, I think, are somewhat premature...

As for me, and observing myself during this process, I have discovered that I am far more Conservative than I once thought. They say that with age, ones views become more and more conservative. And while I would never, ever, in a million years vote Republican in the United States, I hear nothing but sense when I listen to Mr. Cameron.

This, too, I think belies a fundamental difference between the British and American political systems. Years ago, when trying to explain the British political system to me, a savvy, student economist friend of mine clarified it thus: 

"You see. We have two parties in Britain. The Tories (Conservatives) who are fundamentally moderate and centrist, akin to your Democratic Party in the States. And, we have the Labour Party, who are fundamentally moderate and centrist, akin to your Democratic Party in the States." 

That, I feel, is the rub. One could argue that the two main parties in Britain are not entirely dissimilar philosophically, but rather differ significantly in pragmatics and practice. In other words, they want the same things, but have different views on how those ends are achieved.

Very exciting times, indeed, then, on this side of the Atlantic. 

Watch this space!

p.s. Spotted an interesting image on the cover of The Sun (not a paper I normally follow, but very intriguing all the same...) - "David Cameron is our only hope"

01 May 2010

J.Crew, J.Who?

Shopping in England provides unique challenges, to put it mildly. 

To be sure, there are gems to be found, like the fab Dolce & Gabbana culottes I found at a few weeks back at my favourite vintage shop, Corina Corina in Warwick; or the blissful retail therapy that is Oxfam online.

But, overall, I find "high street shopping" here very disappointing. Shops, like the ever-classic Laura Ashley and fun 'n funky White Stuff, with their exorbitant prices and ridiculously miniscule dress sizes - that offer no allowances for the female form - have left me lamenting the loss of my favourite Manhattan shops: J.Crew and Anthropologie. 

That is until now!

The DEB and I have been invited to a wedding for one of his work colleagues. It's a big 'do' and everyone is getting "glammed up." There was talk of us girls hiring sarees, but that plan was very short-lived. For weeks, no months, I have been fretting about what to wear, wanting to make a suitable splash. Indian weddings are very colorful affairs. And so, I was determined to branch out, and not resort to wearing my bog standard black!

I search hopelessly to find the perfect dress, and quite by accident, I stumbled across the perfect solution. I discovered the British fashion solution that is Monsoon. 

Monsoon is an odd hybrid: part J.Crew, part Anthropologie. Passing their shop in the Stratford-upon-Avon high street, initially, I'd  thought, "No way their stuff will work for me."

Being a shapely petite, I had previously been put off by some of their wares, which seem to lean toward a sort of "ethno-tribal" aesthetic. (That's fashion code for "large prints and crazy colours.")

But, quite by chance, I stumbled across "the perfect dress" by Monsoon. A seller on eBay UK who goes by the moniker "HiYouTart" caught my eye. She seems to have been peddling
Monsoon gear on eBay for donkey's years.

On offer recently, was a "silver-grey, silk linen, pencil shift dress" with my name on it!

Not a colour or shape I'd go for normally, but something about it said, "Yes, please!" Without hesitation, I bought it. I waited with bated breath until it arrived.

When it arrived, everything about it was right: the cut, the colour, the fabric, the empire waist, the cleavage-friendly ruched detailing at the wide neck-line...and, it fit like a dream
Trinny and Susannah would be proud!

Success at last!

That settled, the quest for bag and shoes begun. To my surprise, lightening struck twice, and I had immediate success after perusing the website of another popular British fashion retailer, Boden.

Boden's website was breath of fresh air, their look is very J.Crew. And I found the most delightful shoes.

Boden seem to speak my language, here's the description of their cute Embellished Heels:

There’s more than a touch of Marilyn Monroe to this desirable pair, and the kitten heel means you can run for a taxi and still pull off a glamorously dignified look. The single strap fitting across the toe will make your legs look even longer, and the wink of diamante clinches the film-star appeal. Kittenish.

Well, meow, indeed!

And of course, gorgeous matching bag...Hubba, hubba!

In Hamlet, Polonius advises his son Laertes to shop wisely as "apparel oft proclaims the man". Apparel always proclaims the woman, or so we are lead to believe. 

I think the one of the greatest gifts of aging/growing up is that you stop caring about tren
ds and what others think. You discover your own style, what works, what doesn't; what suits you and what you like.

So, let's just hope that our recent revelries  at The Boar's Head pub for "National Cask Ale Week" haven't taken it much of a toll! 

It will be just my luck not to fit in the "perfect dress". 
Trust me, it has happened before! 

Beers be damned!