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Friday, 8 October 2010

The Rime of the Ancient Diner


Last weekend was unusually busy. The Eagle came around for supper on Friday night. On Thursday evening I made 4 double baked cheese soufflés, flavoured with lemon thyme from the garden, and a baked apricot cheesecake, which I left to chill in the fridge overnight. On the day itself I baked a loaf of Finnish rye bread and lemon cupcakes. At the last moment I decided to make watercress soup and serve it instead of the soufflés, which I placed in the freezer for another occasion. As the Eagle was coming around on her own and not with her vegetarian partner, I had the chance to try out a new recipe for Thai butternut squash and seafood red curry.

The Eagle presented me with a wonderful bouquet of flowers. For my part, I plucked the last white rose of summer from my garden and placed it in a small 1930s ceramic wall vase. It has since faded away but it had an exquisite perfume. To my mind it is a travesty that commercially roses often have no scent as their blooms and longevity are prized above possessing a fragrance. The Eagle’s favourite tipple is gin and soda. She had left a large bottle of Bombay Sapphire behind at Brimstone Butterfly Towers the last time she came around for supper, knowing full well that I would not be tempted to secretly quaff it all. However if a stranger saw the range of alcohol in my kitchen they would think me a dipsomaniac despite my protestations to the contrary. The alcohol I buy invariably finds it way into my recipes before it ever reaches my gullet. My personal mantra regarding the use if of alcohol in cooking is always to double the quantity suggested. I once served a home made pâté to guests who were rather partial to spending their evenings at a wine bar or pub. Even their robust palates deemed me over generous with the quantity of brandy lacing the pâté.

When the Eagle left my home in the early hours she took with her half the apricot cheesecake,  5 lemon cupcakes, most of the loaf of rye bread, fresh chillies from my chilli plant and a jar of home made green and red tomato chutney. The previous week I had filled three jars with chutney, made from the last of the tomatoes I had grown in the communal hall. The Eagle, who had previously offered to set me up in a tea-shop, now suggested I sell my cupcakes and breads at the local farmers’ market. She is determined to launch me on a new career in catering. My own career plans for her is that she needs to become even more successful in her own right so that she can afford to hire me as her personal chef.

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of sitting down to a fine luncheon prepared by someone else. The Partridge had invited a number of mutual friends around to her house. As one of the couples was bringing along their young son, holding a meal in the evening was not an option, hence the luncheon. The meal gave me a chance to pass on Red Shoes cordial regards to one of the women present, with whom he had had a long term relationship. It always struck me that the woman had been anxious to prove she was financially independent of him and did not wish to be viewed as a potential drain on his finances. Red Shoes owned a house which he continued to share with a former girlfriend whilst he was seeing my friend. He had claimed that that he could not afford to buy out his ex for her share of the property. Or so he said. Within a few months of my friend and Red Shoes parting company, he became engaged to and then married in double quick time to another woman altogether. They subsequently had two sons. My friend looked shocked when she discovered that her former boyfriend was now a father twice over. “He never wanted children when I knew him,” she said in surprise. She has since married someone else who shares her love of hiking. Her partner is also keen on locally sourced food and spoke against the importing of foodstuffs from abroad. I would have been more impressed with his argument were he not given to taking frequent holidays on the Continent and beyond and travelling there by air. As I have not flown for over 6 years, I shall offset my Fairtrade pineapples and bananas with a clear conscience.

The last time I had seen my friend’s son he had been a baby. We had played a game in which he let a ball drop from his high chair and I would roll it along the ground, before picking it up again and handing it back to him, whereupon, he would repeat the process. Now he was a talkative and boisterous child. When I asked him how old he was he said 4. I archly asked whether that was 4 months or 4 years and he replied “just 4.”  Likewise, he was most indignant when I asked when his birthday was as he said he had just had it. The concept of having  a birthday every year seemed not to have occurred to him. Later, the boy sat at the Partridge’s 1810 piano and tickled the ivories. The keys of the piano were indeed from some poor elephant’s tusks but given its great age, that fact is more palatable and indeed legally permissible than if the keyboard had been fashioned from modern ivory. The child made a tolerable noise. Luckily the Partridge did not have a violin at hand as the kind of racket he would have produced would have been such that only a doting parent could have listened to without visibly wincing. At one point the child’s behaviour earned him the threat of being placed in the family car in the street below all on his own. The rest of us were aghast at the thought of the odium that would be heaped on us all if the child suffered an accident as a result. In the event, his mother escorted him to the car and stayed outside on the pavement once she had proved that her words were no idle threat. Suitably chastened, the child returned to the flat and was on his best behaviour for the rest of the afternoon.

After everyone had left I helped the Partridge clear up and readily accepted her invitation to stay the night as it meant I could visit nearby Fenton House the following day. On Sunday I was given the choice of attending church with the Partridge or making my own separate way to Fenton House. The Partridge is a regular visitor to the latter. It houses a collection of historic keyboards, the earliest dating from the 1540s. Having passed an open audition, the Partridge has secured the right to play the instruments whenever she wishes, subject to contacting Fenton House in advance to ensure there is no prior call on their use. Consequently, she did not mind forgoing the opportunity to wander around Fenton House for once. Nevertheless, she was keen to visit the gardens as the annual Apple Day was being held in its orchards and grounds.

Although I regularly attended Sunday school as a child, I was never a regular churchgoer as an adult being more interested in the architecture than the services. I was intrigued to see what a Sunday church service would be like nowadays. The 19th century church was full as it was celebrating its patron’s day.  I noticed an elaborate  granite memorial on the internal wall over the porch and asked the Partridge why it had been erected. She did not know for the somewhat surprising reason that she had never noticed it before. By contrast she could instantly recall the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had been reburied in the nave of the church, having been disinterred from his earlier resting place in Highgate Chapel in the 1960s. I had momentarily forgotten that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. The latter I had once been able to recite from heart. The poet spent his final years as a patient and house guest of Dr James Gillman who owned a house nearby. The Partridge said he had lived in a garret there but I later discovered that the Gillman family had gone to the trouble of building an extension for their illustrious guest.

Close by Coleridge’s home is the 18th century The Flask public house. I preferred the more striking exterior of the 18th century Crown Inn at Twickenham. As Coleridge was addicted to opium and being treated by Dr Gilman for his addiction, I somehow doubt whether he would ever have strolled down the road to share the odd pint of ale with the locals lest he became addicted to alcohol. Curiously Coleridge and I once shared a medical condition in common, although his was exacerbated by his predilection for ingesting large amounts of opium for recreational purposes.  The autopsy performed on Coleridge’s body revealed he had an enlarged heart when he died, something I use to suffer from until I was treated on the NHS. The latter proved so successful that the technician had difficulty in locating my heart during my last echocardiogram, obliging him to seek assistance from a senior member of staff after a quarter of an hour’s fruitless search. It seems, physically if not metaphysically, my heart is not in the right place.  

The church service had a choir and a small orchestra. Children participated in the first part of the service until they went off to their Sunday school. Before they left one of the men from the orchestra stepped in front of the congregation with a microphone in his hand.
“Hello boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen,” he began, evoking a muttered “Oh my God!” from me.
The man struck a match and asked the onlookers if he could blow it out. He then lit a few more and repeated the question. He asked us to imagine whether it was credible that he could burn down the entire church building with a single match if there were a bonfire high enough. The whole point of this display was so that the man could draw an analogy with the idea of a single small flame of faith setting the world on fire. It was breathtakingly audacious for a Protestant to draw such an analogy in an Anglican church of all places. Had he not heard of the martyrdom of Bishops Ridley and Latimer in 1555 under the bloody reign of Queen Mary I of England?  As the fires were being lit to burn them alive at the stake Bishop Latimer was heard to tell his companion in death: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'

A woman gave a reading at an excruciatingly slow pace. I was mentally willing her to get on with it as I followed the text from my pew. Then we had the main sermon from a guest preacher. He was the kind of brimstone and hellfire apologist who would probably have told us to clad on our armour and set out on a holy crusade in another age. I could not help feeling that he was rather too fond of his own voice and relished the fact he had a captive audience, too polite to slink out of the church as he droned on. Christian he might have been, charismatic he was not in my opinion. The final hymn left me puzzled. I knew the tune but the words were unfamiliar. Afterwards the Partridge explained that the tune to the hymn by William Young Fullerton was better known as the music for the traditional Irish ballad of Oh Danny Boy.
The saving grace of the entire service was a spirited rendition at the end of Widor’s “Toccata” played on the church organ. Trays of red and white wine, orange juice and little pastries of sweet onions were passed around the remaining congregation. Now that the service was over I was full of good, if not quite the Holy Spirirt, again.   

When we had entered the church it has been a sunny autumn morning. We left, almost two hours later, to heavy rain showers. I was still determined to visit Fenton House, although we did not know whether the Apple Day fete would have been abandoned thanks to the deluge. I shall return to this subject anon.