Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Birthday Thoughts

My mother, grandmother and I in Trafalgar Square, London

    Two weeks ago was my birthday and as part of a long standing tradition, I had a special birthday dinner. When I was young, my mother prepared it at home but as time progressed and my circumstances became more affluent it was succeeded by dinner at a restaurant - at first with friends in a local  chain  followed by an outing with my ex in a more exclusive affair and finally with my adult children. Thus two of my daughters and I went to an ornate Italian restaurant on the evening of my birthday with the name of “La Fenice” on King Street in heart of the theatre district of downtown Toronto and not far from the location of the Princess of Wales theatre which is  playing, ”The War Horse”. The dinner reservation was for 7:30 pm so we could miss the theatre folk that usually pack the place after the Saturday performance and it wasn’t crowded so we got the window table where we could observe the exotic folk on the sidewalk pass by and see the latest fashionistas with their designer clothes strutting on the pavement. My youngest daughter who got her diploma in fashion management at George Brown College and goes with me on shopping expeditions for clothes to ensure that I’m up to date as well as meet her standards for dress, liked to critique the sidewalk parade which was quite thick on the balmy evening. She`s quick to notice a Christine Laboutine shoe or a Tilley shirt. The restaurant name is Italian for “the Phoenix” and references the opera house of the same appellation in Venice, Italy which is famous both for its premieres of such operas as Rigoletto as well as burning down several times over the years hence the name, rising from the ashes of its prior incarnation. One of the pictures on the walls shows the front of the opera house in the 1890s. The venue is known for the quality of its seafood and the charming / discrete waiter brought a platter of a number of freshly caught fish on ice that had recently been flown from the Mediterranean so the species were particular to that region. It was good that he was knowledgeable since my second daughter, the chef, has never found a restaurant that she couldn`t critique at length and send back any food that was perfectly cooked and plated. I found the fish on the small side and not that interesting although a native of the region would find them reminiscent of home. When I first went to “La Fenice” many years ago I would order the arctic Char which is related to the Salmon but more delicate and the fish would be big enough to feed two well. It’s hard to find the fish now days because of restrictions due to over fishing and the available Char are much smaller than in the past. I couldn’t take any pictures because my daughters now have a rule that dad doesn’t take pictures of the food when I go out with them. Frustrating but I understand.
My Uncle, Me, Grandmother and Aunt on their farm in the Yorkshire Dales.
  Started out with a bottle of rosé Zinfandel and a basket of fresh bread with olive oil and sweet aged balsamic vinegar that you mix yourself on a side plate. The wine didn’t have much body and was too sweet to have balance but the kids like it. For the appetizer, I ordered the “Bresaola della valtellina con mozzarella” which is cured beef with fresh bocconcini and “La Fenice” extra virgin olive oil that is their private estate brand. For the salad, I had the “Insalata caprese” which is a dish consisting of a variety of heritage tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. For the main course, I had their seafood platter which consisted of poached salmon, calamari and four large scallops with seasonal vegetables. Everything was perfectly cooked with none of the usual chewiness that comes from overcooking. For desert, I ordered the”Zabaglione”, warm whipped custard flavoured with Marsala wine and served with fresh strawberries. My second oldest daughter couldn`t finish her desert, ”Chocolate Orange Hazelnut Torte”, sponge cake that had layers of ground hazelnuts with a whipped milk chocolate ganache flavored with orange and Grand Marnier so I ate that as well. I finished with a Cappuccino. Usually I finish with a Niagara region ice wine or a glass of port but I’d had enough at that point with the extra desert. Ate more than I should but it was my birthday so I suppose that I had some justification.  Afterwards, they gave me a new leather wristband for my watch and a pair of new walking shoes for presents.
Farm with Angus the dog

  Life seems so short sometimes. One minute you`re changing diapers and next the children are off to university. The meal at the restaurant got me thinking about my childhood when I lived on my uncle’s farm in the Yorkshire Dales not far from the Brontë parsonage in Haworth where the Brontë sisters grew up.  I certainly understand the bleakness of the moors and the feeling of stepping on a wet spongy surface in the treeless fields under the constant cold rain. My uncle’s farm was on top of a hill overlooking a grey stony mill town which lay in one of the valleys that crease the Pennines. The area really hasn’t changed since Charlotte wrote ``Wurthering Heights `` which was situated in the local region although under a false name. He had a goat herd and bees as well as a greenhouse where he grew a variety of vegetables that certainly wouldn`t survive on the moors. The farm house known as Rock Cottage was modest but felt warm and safe especially on stormy nights when the wind would blow against the banging window shutters and the house seemed like an isolated pocket of humanity in the vast empty expanse of the moors. We ate exceptionally well compared to the general population since rationing continued in Britain until 1954 with cheese, meat and clothing being available in small amounts that could be obtained only with government coupons while we had access to fresh goat milk, cheese and butter as well as sugar from the honey while the people in the mill town below had to struggle. I, of course, being young was unaware of this until much later in my life because my relatives and family never discussed it.
Rock Cottage

  Britain at that time was a class society (and still is in many regards) so I with my North American accent and the cowboy boots that my mother had bought before we left for England, garnered the “cousin from the colonies” comments and was always an outsider although my mother’s side of the family were local and my great grandfather’s eldest son who was killed in World War 1 had his name inscribed on the plaque in the sanctum sanctorum of the private school in the area near the coast.
My uncle with his chickens

  Later after we moved back to Canada, I could always maintain a distance and study the scene and behaviour of the folks in the community from the aspect of a curious but intelligent observer - a trans Atlantic hybrid with my own unique nationality. Since then I've travelled much and learned a little.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Elliot
Honey gathering


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