May 29, 2007
The Tuscan Dream

350px-Provinces_of_Tuscany_map.pngWhen I first decided to move to Munich in Germany, I remember my mother asking me on the way to the airport "So how long are you planning on being away? A year? Five years?" Startled, I considered the question for the first time. More than a year, most likely, but less than five I thought; Paris was always the ultimate destination for me and Munich just a foothold in Europe to get there. My boyfriend at the time had a job with his dad's company in Germany, giving us at least one legitimate salary between us. Fifteen years later, I'm still here and have acquired a lot of furniture, a cat, a piano, an extraordinary husband and two darling boys. We are finally contemplating leaving France (don't ask where, as we don't know yet). And as if to cement this major decision, we are finally fulfilling a dream I've had for the last fifteen years. A long holiday in Tuscany. In a 16th century villa with a private swimming pool. And if that isn't enough of a dream come true, we are importing two fun-loving family babysitters from the US to look after our boys and allow us to really enjoy the trip. Even as I type it, I can hardly believe it. Tuscan food, Tuscan wine and - if I can steal away from the family long enough - a veritable feast of Renaissance art. Oh yes, our dear readers, I was actually an Art History major at university and the best professor I came across had a genius for bringing Renaissance art to life.

I know that we are missing the best season for some of Tuscany's best produce - chestnuts and mushrooms for example - but I'm expecting the food to be exceptional. And I'm hoping that some of our Great Reading Public will come through and give me some tips on where to go. Restaurants, favourite gelato spots, tastiest dishes and (of course) best vineyards: enlighten us! I'm a breastfeeding mother, so aside from the wine, I can consume without moderation and enjoy the fruits of the sunny south to the fullest. My mouth is watering at the very thought of it even now...

Note: this means that I won't be posting much for the next three weeks (THREE WEEKS!!) but hopefully Barrett will be able to make up for my absence. Be patient with him, though, as he recently had an emergency operation and so is not fully up to speed. Come June, we will be migrating to a new and more stable server and so things should liven up at TMC. Thanks for your patience!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:50 PM | Comments (5)
May 16, 2007
On Motherhood, Food and Friendship

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I believe the most-ignored piece of advice that every first mother receives is "look after yourself: take naps when the baby naps and accept all offers of help". I ignored it. By the end of the first week of motherhood, I was a walking zombie and the Critic forcibly removed the baby from my arms and pushed me towards the bedroom - to the scandal of his mother, who only saw her son sending his wife to bed without supper. Partly, this is because you are keyed up and excited and living on an adrenaline high. And this is also in part because you still have this secret hope that you will be a Supermom. The one who gets it right and never needs help because she's got it all taped. So you conscientiously try to make sure that each person who sends you a cute baby outfit receives a photo of the cute baby in the cute outfit, you keep up on the blogging and make nice dinners and you congratulate yourself on keepingi it all together...until the day when it all falls apart and you start to realise what motherhood is really about. My favourite book on pregnancy (Best Friend's Guide to Pregnancy) has a very apt culinary metaphor for the concept of motherhood. Motherhood is not a soufflé, says the author Vicki Iovine, which you either get right or wrong on a single attempt: it's a stew, something that simmers for many years on the back burner and you add spices and ingredients as it simmers, tasting as you go and adapting to your whim. To be a Supermom, you just have to emerge at the end of the long race with mother and child both sane and happy. And the best way to do this, is to accept help.

When my good friend Taina wrote me after the birth of our second son to offer to make us a meal, my first reaction was to politely decline. After all, I'd had a quick recovery from the birth and was physically capable of doing everything necessary to feed my family: shopping and cleaning and cooking. Not only that, but the Critic is not working at the moment so I even had his added support. And then, one night when we ordered Domino's for the second time in five days, I suddenly realised I was being very stupid. Looking after a toddler and a newborn, even with the help of Superdad, is very hard work. At the end of the day, sometimes you don't feel like cooking, or blogging or doing anything but collapsing in front of the TV and thanking the Lord for a toddler who sleeps a precious 11 hours each night. And so I wrote Taina and gratefully accepted her offer.

Today, she came to visit and admire the baby and brought with her a veritable feast for us. I think I expected a 1970's style casserole that could simply be reheated in the oven - which was very stupid of me because my friend Taina is the opposite of a 1970's housewife, elegant and hip and anything but old-fashioned. Instead, I watched amazed as she unpacked a salad of Boursin cheese, apple, dried cranberries and toasted almonds, bread (and even a single garlic clove just in case I was out of garlic - which I was) for making bruschetta, pasta and a delicious Amatriciana sauce. And a beautiful bottle of red wine. The Critic brought his mother back from the UK today for a visit and so I unashamedly served Taina's feast. It was such a stress-free evening when I started to assemble the dinner: Big Brother helped me measure out the pasta and put it in a pot and then was put in charge of sprinkling the dried cranberries and toasted almonds on the salad. I added the cheese (messy) and the apple (required cutting). He wanted to drizzle the salad dressing Taina had provided but I decided that would be testing his toddler skills a little too much. We had a delicious dinner and afterwards the kitchen was hardly any messier than it was before we started. And to cap it all, Big Brother - who has eaten next to no solid food for the last four weeks - sat down with us and ate about a quarter cup of Parmesan AND about twenty pieces of pasta. It was the best gift a mother can have. There was a time when I would have minded that he ate someone else's cooking but not mine. And that time is long since gone; all that matters to this mother is that he eats something healthy and a decent amount.

How lucky I am to have such a wonderful friend. When the first baby was born, I received more clothes than a baby can wear before growing into the next size. They were adorable and I oohed and ahhed over each outfit and rejouiced in my beautiful boy. But this time around we have clothes galore and all the kit we need. The luxury of a delicious cooked meal, is a gift beyond measure. As is the gift of a good friend, and I am grateful to say that I have so many of them - including Taina.

Note: I have managed to cook a bit in the last three weeks and will in due time start posting more regularly. In addition to the stress of adapting to a two-child configuration in our family, the blogging has been hampered by serious technical problems. My good friend Daniel In New Zealand is going to magically solve these for us very soon and Barrett and I will be back to our usual chatty selves. Thanks for your patience and do keep visiting us please!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 4:33 PM | Comments (2)
May 1, 2007
Hunger is the best sauce

AH_food.jpgOne week ago, I found myself having breakfast in bed. It was served on a tray with a white cloth napkin and included crispy croissants, reasonably hot coffee and milk and freshly squeezed orange juice, with a side of yogurt. I cannot remember a meal I enjoyed more. In the first place, it was the first meal I've had in months that I could enjoy down to the last crumb, without feeling like I'd used up the last cubic millimeter of space remaining in my diaphragm for essential actions such as, say, breathing. And in the second place, the new-found space was due to the fact that our second son, Brandon James, had finally decided to make his appearance on the world stage. So a combination of great self-satisfaction and ravenous hunger combined to make the meal memorable.

The American Hospital of Paris (which is, confusingly, in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine) has the reputation of being "the four-star hotel" of hospitals in the Paris area. I was told this repeatedly when I was preparing for the birth of number one son. In fact, it is NOT a four star hotel. But I'm willing to bet that compared with your standard public hospital it deserves those four stars. Every room in the maternity ward has an en suite bathroom. The towels are big and fluffy and you get three of them every day. Toiletries such as soap are provided and when you leave they load you down with essentials like baby wipes, eosine disinfectant and baby soap (if you are leaving with a newborn, that is). The food is copious and surprisingly good. What I find interesting about the food is the differences between what you expect (on seeing the menu), what you see (when it arrives) and how it tastes. You have two choices for each of the three courses of the meal and they all sound elegant: rabbit with tapenade or chicken breast with a forestière sauce, green beans or pasta, cheese or pear sorbet. They always tell you specifically which cheese to expect. And when it arrives, it looks, well...bland. The above photo is the rabbit selection. It wasn't until I actually cut into the meat that I remembered what I had ordered for dinner when they took my breakfast tray. Oh yeah, rabbit. There IS tapenade on that rabbit, though you wouldn't notice it if you weren't looking for it. But the third surprise comes when you start eating: it's all surprisingly good. Okay, yes, hunger and a re-inflated diaphragm make for a wonderful sauce. But the food is pretty good even allowing for those factors. So for a hospital, I'd give the place four stars out of four. For a restaurant, I'd have to deduct a star for the lack of presentation - but I'd still go back and eat there again if the price were right.

And as for the rest of the experience: I cannot recommend the place highly enough. The midwife who remained calm and supportive with a very panicky mother (the baby arrived 54 minutes after we walked into the hospital), the doctor who trusted her instincts and came immediately rather than waiting to be called to say it was time, the nurses who happily supplied me with gallons of water at every hour of the day or night (I drank 4 liters in the first 24 hours!) - they all deserved four stars. As does the new addition to our family. He also seemed supremely happy with he nosh on offer at the hospital, colostrum followed by breast milk.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:08 PM | Comments (1)
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