“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
To see the entire quote, click here.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Fellow expat Michael York says...

I know Brits are not supposed to show emotion (stiff upper lip and all that) but you know me better than that by now! Plus, what can I say? Michael York thinks the characters in my book -- my family in other words -- are rather Dickensian! Well! Well, I'm not in the least offended, in fact I totally agree and I love it! Anyway, Michael finished reading A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns, and here is what he said:

"A perceptive, engaging and informative take on contemporary England as seen through the eyes of a fellow expatriate who writes with humor and affection. The cast of characters has an almost Dickensian vivacity." Michael York

What a gentleman! I always knew I liked him. Now the ball is in your court--I hope you'll give the book a read and enjoy it too!

Friday, August 28, 2009

A cool and peppery starter at summer's end

Being a Brit, I’ve always had a fondness for watercress sandwiches, the kind one has for tea with the crusts cut off, but I’ve always wanted to take their sophisticated, contrasting flavors from the tea table to the dinner table. Here, then, is my take on an old favorite, now transformed into an elegant cold soup for a lovely summertime lunch or dinner.

Choose your weapons
The hardware. A chopping/mashing machine of your choice—luddite that I am, I like to use a pestle and mortar, but this is not necessary. Also a hand-held blender/whirring machine, and You a couple of glass bowls.
The ingredients. A bunch of watercress, an avocado, and a ripe pear, three cups of light chicken stock, four-five thick slices of crustless country bread, a good dash of salt, a garlic clove, three tablespoons white wine or cider vinegar, and a lemon from which to squeeze a few tablespoons of juice. You’ll also need a quarter cup of olive oil, plus a teaspoon or two. If you feel so inclined, a tablespoonful of whipping cream won’t hurt.

Let’s get cracking
Peel and chop up the pear into very small dice, squirt with lemon juice, and set aside. Now wash and chop up the watercress leaves and just the tenderest stalks, put into a glass bowl, reserving a little for garnish. There, simple.

While your chicken stock is coming to a low boil, mash up the bread, olive oil, salt, vinegar and tablespoon of lemon juice in your pestle or other mashing implement. Drop the garlic clove in the stock, blanch for 30 seconds, then fish out and add to your sloppy bread mixture. Mash up well. Tip the just-boiled chicken stock over the watercress leaves; this blanches them and adds to the vibrancy of the finished dish. Mix in the bread mixture. Chop up the avocado and add to your mixture. Now whirr everything up with your hand mixer (or food processor). If your soup is too thin, add a bit more bread and whir it into the soup to thicken.
Now chill the concoction for a few hours, and you will end up with a vibrant, peppery, creamy soup. Check for salt, it may need a little more; if you’re concerned about salt add a little more lemon juice instead.
Serve up in little bowls and sprinkle with the tiny pear fruitions––voila! You make of course make bread croutons if you’d rather, but ripe pear adds a luscious contrast. Top with a sprinkling of chopped watercress and, if desired, drizzle on a little cream—et voila! You have a cold, elegant soup with a hint of teatimes past, just perfect for a warm summer’s eve.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Washed out in Sissinghurst

Just as we arrived, the sky opened up and poured down buckets. I could barely see anything.
“Go check it out, see if it’s worth going in,” said Frances.
I felt no great desire to get out of the car. “If we go in, we’ll still be outside. It is a garden,” I said, trying for once to use logic on Frances.
After a bit more prodding, I got out to reconnoiter. I peeked over a fence for a free look.
In good weather, the crumbling monastery sprouting plants and shrubs and flower beds must have looked quite delightful, but all I saw was an overgrown, sprawling, crumbling mess awaiting demolition. Only the keenest of enthusiasts could derive any joy from the garden in that downpour. And some did. I saw a flock of old ducks in see-through plastic bonnets, pointing out specimens to each other with unabashed excitement. Oblivious to the weather, they even smiled.
Straddling large puddles, I hurried back to the car and explained the situation to Frances, who was now in the back seat entertaining Kate. I suggested she check the place out for herself. Wisely, Frances declined to leave the warmth of the car. As we pulled out, a coach was pulling in, with obviously hardier types than us.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Another English garden

One of England’s most famed gardens, Sissinghurst was created by the writer Vita Sackville West and her essayist-publisher husband Harold Nicholson, two members of the Bloomsbury Set who, after sowing their gayest and wildest oats, decided to take up gardening. The English either come out of the closet or the woodshed. Vita and Harold came out of both. Not exactly faithful to each other, they were faithful to their garden. Ironically, long after their deaths, with books and scandals all but forgotten, the garden they created became their most enduring legacy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

England's "most beautiful garden"

One of the things I've come to love about England is its fabulous gardens. So I was delighted when the lovely Teresa Inside the Mind of a MiniMadWoman sent on this wonderfully inviting photo of Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire. Hidcote Gardens are considered by many afficionados to be the most beautiful in England—a definite must-see! (The manor looks pretty nice too!)

If you have a great photo of England, share! Email us and we’ll link back to you if we post it. (72 dpi please!)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Laps 'round the grounds

We went around to the stables. The manager was merry and enthusiastic, and said she was looking forward to taking Kate on her first pony ride, a very important event in a young girl’s life.
“Wonderful view. You must have some great rides here.” I indicated the rolling countryside, framed by poplars and willow trees around a pond.
“Unfortunately, the hotel’s property ends at that line of trees.”
“Really? I thought they owned acres and acres.”
“They did, but they sold it. Think they regret it now, selling it off, you know. Still, we’ve got enough space for the younger riders, so it’s not too bad, is it, Kate!”
Kate beamed. After having a gander at the ponies and horses, we strolled through the grounds and ended up at the indoor swimming pool, an oasis with palms and large glass windows looking onto the park-like setting. Kate splashed about in the tiny paddle pool with Frances, I managed a couple of languid laps, thinking all the while about the racing turns I intended to make in our enormous bathtub back in the room. Couldn’t wait!

Monday, August 17, 2009

A room in the attic

We reported back at the front desk. Our room was ready. Perfect. Need help with bags? Thank you. The hotel was three stories high, apparently not worth installing elevators, so we followed our porter up a staircase becoming less salubrious and narrower as we ascended. We were heading for the old servants’ quarters. No matter, our room was big with a ceiling high enough to throw an echo. The bathroom was long and skinny and incredibly ornate, with a tub I could stretch out in. Big tubs – one of the things I loved about coming back to England. But first a nap. Two hours later, we were up and about. I felt human again, Frances was smiling, and Kate was eager to go out and run around.

Friday, August 14, 2009

'Tis the season to be fruity

With summer coming to a close, I wanted to tempt you with a lovely English fruit pud called, most aptly, summer pudding. I must confess, Prodigal Wife and Daughter never quite took to the cooling charms of this quintessential English dessert. They said it was too bready, too pudding-like, and just a bit too splodgy. And I really could not blame them: apart from fresh fruit, the standard recipe is mostly day-old white bread and gelatin.
So here is a lighter version of this classic summer stand-by, one that has found favor in the Prodigal household. Unlike the traditional sweet, which is large and hard to cut into portions, I create individual puds crammed with fruit filling and devoid of gelatin, encased in a very thin layer of raisin bread! The resulting concoction is lighter, fruitier, and just a little more fun to eat—and everyone has their own pud, which is a great plus.
This is a no-cook dessert (almost), another boon in the summer, but it does require at least 24 hours to set up. In fact, I’ve left them for 48 hours in the fridge, and the bread casing almost disappeared; the flavors meld, becoming richer and even more delectable. What a great do-ahead recipe to round off a special dinner party. Let’s begin.

What you’ll need

Equipment: Six ramekins or custard cups, whatever they may be (Prodigal Wife says Americans know what a custard cup is). You will also need teacup saucers, a couple of cans for weights, and two cookie sheets or large trays. Also, you’ll need a sieve, a glass bowl, and plastic wrap.
The edibles: Purchase or pluck a lemon, a pannet of strawberries, and a carton of blueberries. If you use a combination of berries you won’t need gelatin (strawberries don’t have much pectin, so it doesn’t set up so well on its own). You can of course use other berries, such as raspberries and blackberries, but I find them outrageously expensive and don’t think they add that much. You’ll also need a loaf of raisin bread, sliced thinly or uncut and preferably not flavored with cinnamon. Or else use brioche of challah. Or panetone--I’ve never used that but I think the end result would be quite superb.

Now let’s do it!
Roughly slice the strawberries and place in a saucepan with the blueberries and some lemon zest. Add a squeeze of lemon. You could also add a dash of leftover dessert wine, which is nice but not essential. Now add six tablespoons of sugar. Before adding the sugar, taste the fruits, if both are tart use a little more sugar. Use your judgment on this, but you’ll need some sugar or syrup won’t set up.
As soon as mixture boils, take off the heat and let the cool. Slice the raisin bread as thinly as possible. Cut off the crusts. Recipes I’ve seen always call for day-old bread, but why wait? I don’t. Cut the bread slices into inch-wide strips. Line the bottom and sides of your ramekins with the strips, making sure enough bread sticks out at the top to fold back over. Overlap the bread strips a little and press down, making sure there are no gaps.
Put the fruit mixture into the sieve over a glass bowl. Now wait an hour to let the lovely juices drain. Although you want to capture as much juice as possible, resist the temptation to press down on the fruit or you’ll ends up with pip bits between teeth. Now carefully spoon the fruit mixture into the ramekins until they crest the very top. Fold over the extra flaps of bread, and press down. Now draw the plastic wrap tightly over each ramekin. This will help set the mould. Place ramekins on the tray then place a tea saucer, ridge part down, on top of each wrapped ramekin. Put the other tray or cookie sheet atop the saucers, and weigh the tray down with the cans. Place all this in the fridge. I’ve taken a long time to describe what is in fact a very simple procedure. It does take a little longer because instead of making one large summer pudding you are making (I hope) individual ones. Much nicer. Now boil up the collected juices and reduce a little. You want to end up with a thick, rich, but pourable sauce, not a jam.
Now you wait for a day, then... Remove ramekins from the fridge. Peel away the plastic wrap. Using a sharp knife, go around the edge of the pudding. Turn the ramekin over and turn out your pud onto a small pretty plate — Royal Worcester, of course! You will notice the juices have seeped through, giving the pud a lovely purple color that glistens on the plate. Dab any uncoated bits with the lovely reserved juices. Moat the plate with a little of the purple fruit sauce, add a dollop of whipped cream, and garnish with a sprig of mint, if you must. Now tuck in and discover just how delicious this classic English treat really is. Summer will fade but sweet memories of this fruity indulgence will not.
Try it and see!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"And one staircase going nowhere, just for show..."

As our room was not ready, we decided to explore. The staircases went up and went down at various levels and ended in totally different locations. Most odd. The bedrooms – those we could peer into – were not uniform in size, and neither were the public lounges. The walls were dotted with photo portraits of the hotel’s original owners, dressed in formal dinner wear, outfitted for country walks with Norfolk jackets, casually resplendent for tea, or in gauntlets and flat hats, roaring to go for daring trips by horseless carriage.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Roast beef portsmouth, anyone?

On the ride back to Deal, Lew read snippets from the pamphlet Frances had picked up. The town of Sandwich was first recorded in the seventh century and had Saxon origins, though many believe it was settled much earlier. The name was derived from the Place of Sand, but it was the origin of the edible sandwich that intrigued us most. It all started in the mid-eighteenth century. The illustrious Earl of Sandwich, in order to continue gambling and, presumably, not break a winning streak, called for beef to be placed between two slices of bread so he could eat without getting gravy on his playing cards or ruffled shirt sleeves. Thus a new dish was created.
Ironically, the earls of Sandwich had no real connection to the town. The first one, Edward Montagu, only took the title because his fleet docked at Sandwich prior to sailing for France to pick up King Charles the Second and return him to the throne of England. Montagu could just as easily taken his title from another town along the coast.
“Anyone for a roast beef portsmouth?” I asked.
We thought about it for a moment; it did not sound as strange as I expected.
“Could work,” said Frances. “Although roast beef ‘rye’ would be better.”
“Rye! Yes. Clever. Very.” I smiled.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Is anybody out there?

Prodigal Daughter, who is much more technically savvy than we are, encouraged us old folks to get onto Goodreads and Shelfari. Which we did--but we can't figure out who's out there (Shelfari's search engine is particularly weak)! If any of our bloggy friends would like to join us, we would love that! If you can figure out the system, our user names and email on both sites are:
Denis L aprodigaltouristATgmailDOTcom
Frances E prodigalwifeATgmailDOTcom
Hope to see you in the shelves!
Denis & Frances
PS: Signed up on Librarything too but haven't put any books there. Is that one as popular?

Our blogger's cup runneth over

Now here's what I call a lovely cup of rosie lea! We were honored by this charming cup of roses from our friend Melissa at Smitten by Britain, which she says she created to recognize "bloggers who inspire, whether through laughter, grace or just darn good writing." If this is the case, we should give one back to her, because her blog is a breath of fresh air, and we always enjoy our visits. However, the idea is to pass it forward, so here goes.
*More of a share than a pass-along, my first choice is Prodigal Wife, whose photos always inspire me (she turned me into a tourist, right?). The rosy cup will look lovely on her blog, A Slide of Life.
*My "real life" friend Paul at See Me. Hear Me. Touch Me, because I want to encourage him with his new, non-theatrical venture, just as he has always encouraged me. Plus, his blog looks rather bare, I think.
And, of course, due to the nature of the lovely award, I want to recognize these fellow tea lovers, because nothing is more inspiring than a real cup of tea:
* ParTea Lady at Tea and Talk
* Linda J. at Friendship Tea
* Bernideen at Bernideen’s Tea Time Blog
* Angela at Tea with Friends
Just the name of their blogs make me smile--and there's always tea waiting when you visit.
Well done everyone, and thanks again, Melissa!

Friday, August 7, 2009

A truly golden hill in Dorset

Our thanks to Jonathan at Anglotopia for sending on this gorgeous photo of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset.
If you have a great photo of England, email us — we'll link back to you if we post it!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A toasted Sandwich

We asked Cousin Kevin to take some piccies in Sandwich, that wonderful medieval town we discovered on our travels, almost by accident. He came up trumps with this weird and wonderful structure we vaguely recalled seeing near the river’s edge, but we could not quite remember its purpose. It looked like one of those cages naughty villeins were put in to rot! So Kevin put us to rights: It was a pole beacon.
The structure was filled with wood, rags, and kindling, all to be set ablaze as an ancient first alert system. Prior to the arrival of the mighty Spanish Armada, these pole beacons were built, set up, and made ready all along the southern coast of England. When the invasion fleet was sighted in 1588 the beacons were lit, one after the other.
This amazing sight of crackling fire and billowing smoke was the signal for all mannish men to assemble at their local church, armed and ready, and await instructions. The incident is recalled in history books of the time: “Sir Walter Raleigh sailed out to engage the dastardly Spanish in the Channel and Kicked their Arse.”
Cousin Kevin adds, “And that’s why we all speak English today! See... I was listening during history lesson at school, instead of staring out the window.” And we are pleased you were paying attention, old chap!

Monday, August 3, 2009

It's all relative, even in Cambridge

For hundreds of years young men had been gaining a higher education just a few yards from where Lew sat. He left school at fourteen, a working class lad, not lacking intelligence, just lacking the encouragement and confidence such places of learning seem to bestow. I don’t think he looked around him and saw a missed opportunity for himself. It was a world in which he felt he could never belong. This, he imagined, was the world of Milton, Tennyson, Hawking, a world beyond his horizons, his class. But not beyond the ambitions of his family.
“Your granddaughter may study here one day, Dad.”
Lew’s face crinkled into the semblance of a smile. He nodded, I prepared myself for a bitter comment, a wistful phrase tinged with regret.
“I’m knackered. I’m truly knackered,” he growled as he got to his feet. “There’s a pub up the road. We’ll go for that, me and your mother. Come on!”