Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Foraging in Knightsbridge & Billingsgate ~ excerpts from American Daughters

Livia endeavoured to work from home as much as she could and shopped daily for relaxation if her schedule permitted. She was rather like an old-fashioned villager. Except for her the locale was not some out-of-the-way rural outpost. Her village was Knightsbridge and she took full advantage of the variety it had to offer. Besides if she wanted something fast and easy there was always the difficult choice between the delicatessen at Partridge’s near Sloane Square or Harrods’ Food Court.

She preferred grocery shopping on Harvey Nics’ Fifth Floor gliding up inobtrusively by way of the lift next to the Seville Street entrance, but had been known to venture as far afield as Waitrose in the King’s Road for the more basic of necessities, even though that required a taxi or the car. For the elements of bread and wine she used Baker & Spice on Walton Street and the neighbouring off-licence. But the choice of shop for wine was often dictated by taste. Her all-time favourite provençale rosé, Domaines Ott Château Romassan, in its beautifully shaped distinctive bottles, was no longer stocked by Harvey Nichols, yet mercifully one of the few remaining locations for it in London was the branch of Jeroboams on Pont Street just along from Agent Provocateur, if anything less of a trek than that to her preferred department store. Her indulgences were cheese and fish. She would walk down to Pimlico, if she had time, and head for the Rippon cheese shop on Tachbrook Street where the selection of cheeses was as large as any in the capital. She also liked it that the owners could provide her with some of John’s special English cheeses, such as Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire or the sinful Gloucestershire goat’s cheese, Cerney, moulded into a flat-topped pyramid, that she loved as a change from the French. They had even memorised her preferences so well that they could subtly prompt her if, for example, she forgot to add a hard cheese to her board selection with ‘I know your husband likes to have English cheeses but you prefer the French, I’m sure you will both like the Abondance’ or something similar.
Occasionally she would rise early on a Saturday and drag John out of bed to drive her to the new Billingsgate in Docklands to bargain for sea bass or lobster with the market traders, demob happy at the fag end of their last shift of the week. Dublin Bay oysters, Morecambe Bay shrimps or Scandinavian crayfish, according to season, would often serve as a starter in a sumptuous home supper, especially if friends or family were present. 
On the Saturday morning he was awakened early by a bright-eyed Livia.
‘Up you get, lazy bones. We’ve a job to do.’
John moaned.
‘Couldn’t we just do a little more of what we were up to a few hours ago?’ he asked salaciously.
‘Not a chance. I’m dressed and ready. Hurry up.’
It was the only reason Livia would rise so determinedly on a Saturday morning. A trip to the New Billingsgate in Docklands. By the time John had showered, shaved and dressed in some old clothes, Livia had pulled an icebox out of the storage closet in the hallway and was sitting on it, in her oldest and tattiest jeans and a rough Hebridean mixed wool roll neck sweater, tapping her foot impatiently.
‘Alright, alright. I’m here. Anything to do?’
‘No, just get your coat on and drive. It’s bloody cold.’
‘And bloody early. What time is it?’
‘Seven o’clock.’
‘You mean to say you’ve got me out of bed at six-thirty on a Saturday morning . . .’
‘A quarter to seven.’
‘Whatever! It won’t be light for another couple of hours.’
‘Stop moaning and get hold of the handle on the icebox.’
‘Slave driver.’
‘Someone’s got to do it. This is our last opportunity to get some decent fish before the holidays.’
‘What about breakfast?’ It was his customary complaint on these trips.
‘What? Didn’t you grab anything?’ she laughed. ‘I’ve already had a bowl of fruit. We’ll take something at the café when we’ve finished doing the rounds of the stalls. You know you like their bacon butties!’
On their way through the near empty streets to Docklands they conversed about Andrew.
‘I don’t suppose he wanted to come with us,’ John surmised, ‘he’s hardly ever up before noon. Altogether a victim of SAD.’
‘I did think he would have sorted out his gap year by now. I told him I wasn’t going to do it for him.’
‘I’ll do it for him if you won’t. Get him off to South America for six months, working in Peru. That would give him a different outlook on life.’
‘He has to do what he wants to do.’
John was surprised that Livia would leave him to his own devices. It was most unlike her.
‘Well, all he wants to do is hang out with his trustafarian friends in South Ken or Notting Hill, drink himself into a lager langour and chase skirt.’
‘I think he’d like to work with Archie for a while.’
‘Oh yes, tooling down the King’s Road in an E-type is just his style.’
‘Whatever he gets up to, I’m sure he’ll come out alright.’
You will see to that, John thought. He knew she was concerned about the trust fund he would inherit in six years time.
‘Steady on there, darling.’ By this time John was weighed down with her purchases.
‘I’ve been planning the menus for the holidays. I thought we should make it rather more special than usual given the occasion. So we’ll combine the best of British and the best of continental festivities. After all this is the new Europe.’
‘All that means is we’ll eat more.’
‘I want to do a traditional Christmas Eve supper like we have at Le Chaudron.’
‘Ah, so that’s what all the fish is for.’
‘Not just that. Smoked haddock for kedgeree. And shrimp and clams, and whatever else is left over, for a paella in the week before New Year. I know you like that. And it’s so much fun to cook. Perhaps Hilary and Robin will help me with it.’
At home Livia like to have the family about, sitting in the kitchen, while she was cooking. It was a social event for her as much as any other. Only when she was preparing something difficult or very special would she shoo them out of her way.
‘Don’t count on it. I’ve no idea how good they are in the kitchen. But whatever happens don’t let Andrew help out. The last time he put anything on the Aga he almost burned out the bottom out of the pan. He has trouble with the switch on the microwave.’
‘What microwave?’
‘Exactly, darling. Now where’s my cup of char and the bacon butty you promised me?’
He followed her into the café at the corner of the market. The stallholders were even more boisterous than usual as theory approached the end of their final shift of the week, their voices raised several decibels over the wailing of the Christmas hopefuls for chart success on Radio One. John started unburdening himself of his packages at an empty Formica table while Livia went up to the counter to order and exchange a few friendly words with the staff. Having ducked an air-borne burger bap thrown by one of the larking market men at a couple of stallholders on the next table, John looked over at her, while the air was blasted by a dozen expletives. She was perfectly at ease in this milieu, almost, from what he knew of her, in any milieu. She leaned on the high counter, merrily chatting away with the older woman and the young grinning boy working overtime to complete the last orders of the day. On each side of her stallholders chipped into the conversation, with a joke and a ready laugh. She brought his toasted bacon sarnie and two mugs of tea over to the table and sat down. John leaned over and whispered to her as he reached for the brown sauce.
‘You’re magnificent.’
‘Well, thank you, kind sir. Perhaps I should serve you bacon butties every morning. What’s brought this on?’
‘I don’t know. Sitting here dodging burger baps,’ he looked cautiously over at the men at the next table who met his glance with a grin, ‘all seems right with the world.’
‘You won’t be saying that when we get back to the flat and you’ve got to sort out all this fish!’  

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