“Half memoir, half travel, A Yank Back to England...is an absolutely wonderful book, not only about going home again but also about love and family and tradition and the passage of the years.”
—Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic (Washington
Post)
To see the entire quote, click here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Doctor Who? What about Merlin?"

“Jimi Hendrix. He was here. Singer. If you can call him that. And...” He then spoke, slowly, dramatically, “Doctor Who!”
“Really,” I said.
“Oh yes!” He smiled smugly. “The Doctor Who people were always filming down here.”
Our guide obviously felt more comfortable with an alien space traveler than a big-haired rock star. We were not much interested in either. Frances was more interested in a big-haired magician.
“And Merlin? What about Merlin?” she asked, hopefully.
“Well, you know, these tunnels, they go deep, for miles they do. People have been lost, you know, and some of the caves have been boarded up,” he said, avoiding the question.
“Yes? And Merlin?”
“As for Merlin, well, that was a long time ago.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Boo!"

After a few minutes, we arrived at the Celtic Shrine, believed to be thousands of years old. Its high altar, once used for human sacrifices, was flanked on either side by chapels or crypts. Yet, despite the caves’ bloody, pagan past, they still managed to possess the grandeur and stillness of their above-ground Christian counterparts. The guide flashed his light around the crusty, dry walls, then collected our lamps.
“Now stay here. I’m going around the corner.” Our guide left us in the dark, in more ways than one.
“Okay—”
We waited. The total darkness stretched and teased out the seconds the guide, and the light, was away. The dark was velvet thick and seemed as impenetrable as a stone wall. We could not see our hands. Half a minute seemed liked two, which seemed like an eternity. It was eerie, almost frightening, to be enveloped in such blackness and silence. Quite suddenly we heard a loud banging sound that echoed and resonated for perhaps half a minute, an indescribable noise bounced around the walls until the dark slowly swallowed it up. Then the guide shuffled back towards us and handed back our lamps with a grin.
“What do you think?” he asked excitedly. We were speechless.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In the caves of Merlin

Issued with portable lamps, we followed our guide into the labyrinth of Chislehurst Caves, in a nondescript suburb of London on the south side of the Thames. We were the only visitors in the party, and that added to the spookiness and excitement of the occasion. Some people, explained our guide, believed the chalk caves were haunted and the voices of children had been heard laughing and crying. Others swore they had seen a hunchbacked old crone. Roman soldiers had been sighted and a lady in a long blue gown had been seen floating from the center of a haunted pool. In some respects, the ordinariness of the vicinity beyond the caves enhanced the mysteries we could imagine within.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Another lovely surprise

Afternoon Tea Break , a new blogger trying to help people change careers in these challenging times, has surprised us with the very gratifying (and humbling) "Noblesse Oblige" award. Apparently, we are being recognized for the following:
1) The Blogger manifests exemplary attitude, respecting the nuances that pervades amongst different cultures and beliefs (don't know about this one!).
2) The Blog contents inspire; strives to encourage and offers solutions (if this is true, so delighted).
3) There is a clear purpose at the Blog; one that fosters a better understanding on Social, Political, Economic, the Arts, Culture and Sciences and Beliefs (well, maybe a couple of these).
4) The Blog is refreshing and creative (thank you very much).
5) The Blogger promotes friendship and positive thinking (not sure about this one either, but I hope so).

The Blogger who receives this award will need to perform the following steps:
1) Create a post with a mention and link to the person who presented the Noblesse Oblige Award (done).
2) The Award Conditions must be displayed in the post (done).
3) Write a short article about what the blog has thus far achieved – preferably citing one or more older post to support (well...).
4) The Blogger must present the Noblesse Oblige Award in concurrence with the Award conditions (this one's easy).
5) The Blogger must display the Award at any location at the Blog (OK).

What my blog has achieved so far: Well, we started the blog with the intention of getting the word out about my book, a travel memoir about our trips back to England. Since we still haven't secured a publisher, this hasn't been as successful as we hoped; however, we've made lots of interesting cyber-friends, and we've been surprised to discover you all are interested in English cookery! And of course, the lovely comments and emails (and yes, awards!) have encouraged us enough to continue on that elusive hunt for a publisher. So thanks to all our readers, do hope you continue to enjoy our adventures.

We'd like to pass on this award to several people more deserving than us:
* Brian at The New Author for trying to help poor fools like us get a book published;
* Mike at My Thai Photo for not only sharing his beautiful photos of Thailand but also helping people learn English;
* Josephine at A Brit in Tennessee for her big heart and for moving us to tears with her stories about rescued pets and other furry and feathered friends; and
* Carol at The Writer's Porch and Christine at Scully Love Promo Reviews for giving us hope that someone out there is still reading books.
Thanks everyone!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"With love from across the Briney"

Cousin Kevin ( The repairman cometh, part 1 and part 2 ) sent us this fabulous photo of Chertsey Bridge on the River Thames. We had to share! And it gave us an idea: if you have a beautiful photo of England you'd like to share, email us and we may post it with a link back to your blog! (Please, one photo at a time and no more than 100k.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bubble, bubble, but no trouble

We decided to use up the remaining vittles in the fridge. So dinner that night consisted of a happy mishmash of savory dishes. Eggs, tomatoes, salad, baked beans, and, of course, sausages. I also melted down some bacon and fried up some leftover spuds and greens in the rendered fat, and ended up with another cornerstone of English cuisine: Bubble and Squeak. It all went down very well with everyone except Kate, who would eat nothing but sausage! All in all, it was quite a feast, like having breakfast for supper, but instead of drinking tea and coffee, we polished off the remaining beers and the last bottle of wine. Then we made tea.
(Photo depicts my home version of Bubble & Squeak, with leftover cabbage and boiled spuds fried up in lots of bacon.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Endowment fit for a King's

Hard by the cathedral was the King’s School, founded by Henry the Eighth. This is a public school, what Americans would call a private school or a bastion of privilege. Alumni include Kit Marlowe, Hugh Walpole, and a writer I admire, Somerset Maugham. Even though he hated his time at King’s, Maugham left money to the school and some rather bizarre bookends, for buried within the walls of the library are his endowed ashes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where is that meddlesome priest?

After tea we set off down the high street and ambled slowly towards the cathedral. Set within its own grounds, Canterbury Cathedral was an ornate, gray-stoned edifice surrounded by patches of green lawn and clumps of trees. Of course, this cathedral is most famous for the archbishop who was murdered near its altar at the implied request of Henry II, who famously cried out, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"
Although Henry the Eighth dismantled the shrine around the place of martyrdom, the spot where Thomas a Beckett was murdered is still marked. Or so we were told. On the big, black, studded doors, a little typed notice informed us the cathedral was closed for some event of a religious nature. Lew found it most galling.
“Bloody unlucky, that is! I mean, it’s not as if it’s Sunday, is it? Coming all this way!”
Lew sounded more than a bit miffed, convinced all religious events should only happen on the day of rest. But the weather was pleasant, if a little cold, so we decided to walk around the cathedral’s precincts. The soaring towers, ornate windows, and perching gargoyles were still worth seeing. I could easily imagine how, upon its completion seven hundred years ago, this building would have had a profound impact on the pilgrims of the day. Especially since practically all the buildings in the immediate vicinity were squat and lowly dwellings of thatch and clay and cow dung. How imposing, yet how incongruous this towering edifice must have appeared, with its walls of windows and sweeping stonework: the physical manifestation of God’s glory, or man’s folly.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In search of history

We were all surprised how quickly we got to Canterbury. We were within earshot of the cathedral bells in just under an hour. Although parking was expensive and complicated to find, we managed to snare a space within walking distance of all the sights, just inside the ancient city precincts. Canterbury was a walled town and, despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe, the cathedral was mostly undamaged during World War Two and much of the town’s medieval ambiance remained intact.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Time to go!

“Where we going again?” asked Mum.
“Canterbury, Mum, Canterbury. Frances wants to have a look around. Might be interesting, it’s very old,” I conceded. “Can’t remember going there, myself.”
“All that way – a cathedral. Hmmm. I’ve seen one of them.”
“Well, if you want to go to Canterbury, we have to make an early start of it,” said Lew. “It’s a long way. And the traffic!” Lew shook his head ominously, as if he knew, which he didn’t. “Well, the traffic, I wouldn’t like to say.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Wherefore art thou, Alfa Romeo?

I sat behind the wheel, stitched with real leather. I ran my fingers over the smooth wood dashboard. The engine purred. I was behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo. Me. And I wanted that car, if only for a week. It was rather like destiny.
“What about your parents?” Frances broke the spell.
“What about them?” I said, baffled.
“Where are they going to sit?”
“In the back. With Kate. The leather – did you smell the leather?”
Vroom. Vroom. I revved the motor just a little. The spell was not entirely broken.
“There’s not enough room. Where are we going to put their luggage?” Frances asked, slowly.
“I don’t care! They can put their suitcases on their laps. I love this car—”
I was in a giddy fog, quite like Mister Toad, totally in thrall to the hum of a hot roadster. This was a performance car, not meant to be in the least bit practical! The sleek body tapered elegantly at the rear, ensuring the two passengers in the back a cramped fit – sacrificial victims of style and speed.
“Do you want to go for a quick spin? You have a few minutes.” The lovely lady at the car rental place, she understood.
“Can I?”
When I returned from a lap of honor around the car park, Frances and Kate were waiting next to a station wagon, a “shooting brake” my new friend called it, built like a tank. And built with a tape deck.
“We could have made the Alfa work, you know.”
“Weirdo!”

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On a personal note


We are pausing briefly from our memories of England to remember our beloved Oscar Wilde, who has left us for the Field of Mice. You'll always be with us.
Happy Hunting!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A culinary tradition, reclaimed


Cauliflower Cheese is a classic English staple. And when it’s done well, it’s a wonderful thing. Sadly the reputation for this dish has waned over the years and been relegated to the realm of ghastly pub food, made en masse for the lunch crowd because it keeps its heat, like shepherd’s pie with its layer of crisped mash. Even now, this maligned dish is usually found rubbing shoulders with a tray of baked beans and bangers, all held under the ubiquitous glass coffin atop near the beer pumps. And so after an hour or so, the cheese sauce turns into a rubberized cap, the kind a grandmother would swim in. This of course does nothing for the taste but it does act as a heat-sealant.
This is a culinary tragedy. Done right, Cauliflower Cheese is a truly wonderful dish, good enough to be savored alone. But when it accompanies a prime rib roast...you are in God’s own country.
Here’s how to turn a travesty into a culinary triumph.

Cauliflower Cheese, prodigal-style
Break up the cauliflower into florets, chop up bits of stalks if you are feeling virtuous, frugal, or both. Steam until crisp-tender, or cover and microwave for about 5 minutes. (If you use the microwave and value your fingers, leave the florets alone in the microwave for a few minutes to calm down. Anyway, you'll be kept busy making the sauce. )
Put 4 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour in a small saucepan; melt butter with the flour, whisk until no white bits remain. Take saucepan off the fire and let the flour cook off the heat. Add a little salt, a good pinch of nutmeg, and a 1/2 teaspoon of Coleman’s powder mustard (or a couple of shakes of powdered white pepper). Throw in a bay leaf if you must; I never do, I find bay leaves overrated. By now it should be safe to remove the cauliflower from the microwave, which you will use to warm up two cups of milk, either fat-free or whole if you are feeling naughty. Mind you, if you’re feeling particularly decadent (and I know there are one or two of you out there) add a little cream. Now put the saucepan back on the fire, whisk in the warmed milk, keep whisking for a minute or two until the concoction thickens. You have now made a B├ęchamel sauce. Congratulations. I don’t tell Frances but I now add a dollop of cream cheese, about a large tablespoonful, for extra enrichment and flavor. To your creamy cheese sauce add a large teaspoon of Dijon style mustard and a shot of Worcestershire sauce. (And by the way, this is pronounced Wooster Sauce. Wooster as in Bertie Wooster. No shire. No cester. Just Wooster.) Whisk your sauce again then set aside.
Butter a large glass dish and turf in the cauliflower florets and edible stalk bits. If you have a 1/4 cup of cauliflower water residing aimlessly in the bottom of your glass dish or steam pot, add it to your sauce. I now sprinkle a generous amount of grated Swiss cheese over the florets, but you could use any grated mousetrap you happen to have kicking around. Then enrobe the cauliflower with your lovely sauce. The experts pour, but I prefer to spoon it on gently, making sure the sauce covers the cauliflower evenly. Now put the dish in the fridge for 24 hours to rest. No, no, I’m only kidding!
But you do need to top the dish with parmesan cheese before going any further. For additional flavor and crunch I also add fresh breadcrumbs toasted in butter--it’s worth the extra step. Now you’re almost there. Mix a couple of tablespoons of the crumbs with an equal amount of Parmesan cheese and sprinkle this mixture over the sauced cauliflower. Pop the dish into a 350 F oven for 1/2 hour or so, uncovered. When the sauce bubbles and the top is a gold, mahogany brown ––et voila! Do let your cauliflower cheese repose for a few minutes before serving.
This wonderful dish can be prepared ahead, and kept covered in the fridge for hours even overnight. Just don’t sprinkle the crumb mixture until you’re ready to bake. And no, it really doesn’t need any additional salt, the cheese takes care of that. And you can adjust the pepper and dry mustard to your taste. But do use the Worcestershire Sauce, especially now you know how to pronounce it. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A cauliflower grows in Dagenham, part 2

For some unknown reason, the cauliflowers attracted an inordinate amount of caterpillars. Every day these green and white creatures would promenade across the plants’ bulbous surface. When they first appeared, Lew was going to spray them with DDT but thought better of it. Using a stick he knocked the insects off and I had the fun job of smashing and mashing them to bits.
Eventually a caterpillar-free, fully grown cauliflower was delivered to Jessie. The large, heavy plant was divested of its outer greenery, then plunged whole into a pot of water in which it was boiled.
And boiled.
Eventually, the cauliflower was retrieved like a hot and soggy sponge, with all its flavor and nutrients drained away. The cauliflower was divided and served as a side dish. The remains of the florets had turned grainy and mealy, and overall the cauliflower tasted of hot water with fibrous bits.
To suggest to Jessie that a vegetable could be cooked less and retain a touch of crunch would have evoked derisive laughter and looks of incredulity mingled with pity. The idea that a cauliflower could be enrobed in a velvety cheese sauce would have caused my mum great consternation and might have had her doubting my masculinity. Mum would not brook such adulterations.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A cauliflower grows in Dagenham, part 1

If Jessie had the green thumb in our family, Lew had patience, a little skill, and great earth. Dagenham dirt was brown-black and rich in nutrients, either reclaimed marshland or ploughed-over farmland. Despite the sameness and dullness of the housing estate, all terraced houses had a plot of garden front and back. And this is where individuality flourished and occasionally bloomed.
The first part of the garden consisted of a small lawn, with beds of plants, mostly hydrangeas and roses. This was Jessie’s domain. Beyond the trellis and the spreading apple tree, the land belonged to Lew. Apart from the usual root veggies, Lew occasionally went in for more exotic edibles. One year, he decided to grow cauliflower, and he grew it from seed. After what seemed to be an eternity, tiny bits of green fluff began to appear. Then, before we knew it, small, white, carnation-like plants sprang up with thick gnarly green stalks. Within weeks the florets began to grow, yellowy at first, turning firm and white and knobby like a scoutmaster’s knees.