Parties, parties, parties: on Wednesday, at Anne’s, we met two new (to us) Shere couples, a striking woman with gray hair cut in a brush style, and her Danish/British husband whom she met through a newspaper ad. The wife has lived in Shere for a long time, and knows everything about everybody. Can’t wait to know more.
Joy and Paul are newer to Shere than we are. Joy owns the shop on the corner where the antique shop used to be, and which is now full of tastefully displayed high-end linens, bath robes, Christmas decorations, and other gift-y things. Her partner is a New Zealander,ebullient and talkative; not one you would have picked for the quietly spoken, low key Joy.
The three men could hardly have been more different. The New Zealander is tall and thin, in his late fifties or early sixties, an enthusiastic talker . The Dannish/Brit is a stockier man, more toward his late sixties, who has bought land in the Devon and planted thousands of trees Then there is Bernard, also tall and thin, quietly spoken, gentle soul, who is very good at sussing out other people. He didn’t say anything bad about the company.
Anne’s chicken and mushroom dish, garlic green beans, and beautiful apple tart and lemon roulade were beautiful to look at and delicious to eat.
Now, our party –
Some time ago, we invited two couples for dinner at our house on Friday night. On Wednesday, the builders called to say they could come on Thursday and Friday to put the studio together. Eagerly awaited as this project is, I was not about to say no.
They were incredibly efficient. By the end of Thursday night, the walls were up and the roof begun. Friday morning, after a nearly sleepless night, for reasons I won’t go into now, I was feeling every wakeful hour. Then my adrenaline kicked in and I felt in control, fatigue at bay, planning the meal like a general plans a battle. I was making two desserts, a lemon custardy cake and a chocolate tart, braised beef accompanied by roast potatoes ,"carrotes etuvees", and butternut soup. (Yes, the order is backwards, which tells you my favorite part of a meal, but I digress). None are really complicated dishes, only somewhat logistically challenging. I start on the desserts, rolling out crust, squeezing lemons, melting chocolate.
Bernard is off to Guildford for banking errands and to get the bread from Le Maison Blanc; the baker’s name is M. Blanc, in case you are wondering why the article is le instead of la. The plumber knocks. Where do I want the sink, he asks. Out we go to the studio, and there is really only one place for the sink, so I’m wondering why he asks, but okay, it’s nice of him. Then the electrician knocks. I have the pie dough poised over the pan, so I gently drape it and run out to the studio. Fine, got it sorted, sockets placed. Back to the pie dough, pinch the edges, prick the bottom, put it into the oven. I chop carrots, celery, onion, and garlic to sauté in butter before browning and adding the meat.
The plumber is back. Disaster. The basket for the drain hole doesn’t fit. We bought the whole unit at B&Q, the UK do-it-yourself store, and got the wrong pack of accessories. We consider the options. Call Bernard to tell him. He wants to talk to the plumber, and says he will return to B&Q. Back to the kitchen, I am whipping together eggs, lemon juice and zest, flour, and milk, to prepare a dessert I’ve never made before.
Phone rings. Bernard is wondering if I could look at the packing box to see if it has a number for the right basket on it. Get the plumber down to talk to Bernard again. Correct pack is identified. Back in the kitchen, I beat the egg whites and try to determine what "stiff but still moist" looks like. The phone rings, again. It is our vet, calling to see how Tasha is doing on the new heart medication.
Our handyman knocks, wondering if he could "have a word". It’s about something he has too much of, wondering if I’d like them for Christmas gifts for a bargain price. Yes, fine. Back to folding in the egg whites, then pop the custard into the oven in an improvised "bain Marie". He knocks again. Actually, he says, I have a couple more. Okay, fine, fine, fine. Back to sear the meat, drench it in wine, and put it into the oven. Stupidly, I forgot to pick some thyme on one of my many trips to the garden, so I grab the scissors, slip on my clogs, grab a scarf, and brave the rain and the cold (it is only about 45F) to pick the thyme for my bouquet garni.
Bernard arrives with the right basket drain, and I wonder if I should offer these poor guys working in the cold, drizzly day cups of hot tea or coffee. All but two have gone to the "burger van" for lunch. The remaining two are the youngsters of the crew, one of them, predictably, a Pole. They are grateful for a hot coffee to go with their lunch, which they are eating in the garage, and we have a 15 minute chat about their future ambitions.
By the time it is dark, the studio has a skylight, electricity, a little hot water heater, a room heater, running water, and paint on the walls. I am thrilled.
And miraculously, the meal is organized and finished on time, including the chocolate fondant tart. The lemon custard didn’t rise at all. I assume the "stiff but not moist" means more beating than I gave them. I’ll make a raspberry coulis to pour over it, and send Bernard for some vanilla ice cream to disguise my failure. The table is laid, the wine glasses, sparkling.
At 7:15, clean, made-up and dressed, I sit on the sofa and sigh to Bernard that I’ve never felt less like having a dinner party in my whole life. I’d rather go play in my new studio. Or go to bed. He agrees. There is a knock on the door. Our very charming and bubbly neighbor arrives. Her husband, a solicitor (lawyer) in London, will be late because his train was cancelled. The first glass of champagne is started, the fire is roaring, and we begin to relax. The second couple arrive. They have a huge house with several smaller units around. They’ve rented the big house to an American couple and moved into one of the smaller ones themselves, and say we must meet them. Sounds like their politics are of the Orange Curtain type, so I am not sure this is a good idea.
More champagne and nibbles. The conversation flows easily, everyone is enjoying themselves. Tony arrives, and our little party is complete, fun, interesting. We sit down to butternut squash and ginger soup with fresh coriander and chunks of French bread; everyone raves. The braised beef looks unusually flaky, but I remind myself that pot roast looks like that. The vegetables are done at the right time, potatoes crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, the carrots buttery and fresh tasting. I even manage a yummy sauce to pour over the meat.
After cheese, selected and served by Bernard, I whip some cream with a little sugar and vanilla and pass it around to put on the chocolate tart. The lemon whatever-it-is with fresh raspberry coulis is actually delicious, despite being pitifully flat.
Everyone wants to see the new studio. It is really cold by now, but we bundle up to go admire the little house. The women are jealous (everyone I know here paints). The men admire the speed of its completion. We scurry back to the house for hot coffee and tea.
No one leaves until nearly 1:00 Am, an unusually late hour for us. Surprisingly, this has turned out to be one of the best dinner parties we’ve ever had.
Goes to show something, but I’m not sure what. Always plan a building project on the day you are planning a party?
(Today, Sunday, we were invited to a drinks party at Tina’s house. I have crashed, and choose, regretfully, not to go. All the people we know and like were there. Bernard went alone with strict instructions to remember everything. See The Other Side of the Coin.)