Monday, August 07, 2006

Bought Indulgence

I was reading an article this morning that said research had shown an income beyond £15,000 a year did not effect happiness. Though I would agree money can’t buy you happiness, and its possible to be in financial difficulty at any income, what money does is remove stress. If you have it, and are moderately careful with it, there’s a lot of things you don’t have to worry about. Also, though it doesn’t buy you happiness, it does buy you a certain amount of freedom.

Through a mixture of luck, hard word, and careful husbandry we’re in decent financial shape. We can buy or do pretty well what we want and not suffer as a result. That isn’t happiness, but it helps.

Take this weekend. It was LL’s birthday. Often I prepare for such things well in advance. This summer has been extraordinarily busy, and I left it until the last minute. Still, SN was willing to deal with the kids for a night, and I’ve got access to one of those concierge type thingies that helps you gain entrée into where you want to go.

We don’t have a written list, but we’ve certainly a few restaurants we’ve been wanting to try. Every year we try to find time to try out another one. This year was a bit of a surprise. Even my magic key couldn’t get me into either of the places at the top of the list. Yet my mate at the end of the phone did suggest an alternative, and I’m very happy she did.

The Vineyard is a restaurant with a hotel attached. Its owned by a man who has too much money and in his retirement has turned to starting up radio stations (Classic FM) and buying up vineyards and hotels. That is how to retire I think.

So, with everything organised we packed up, turned the kids over to SN and went. It was a lovely day, so we drove with the roof down. We turned up in plenty of time, strolled in and were whisked up to our suite. The hotel had been informed it was a birthday, so my mate had wrangled an upgrade with flowers and champagne. The afternoon was spent in the spa relaxing in the Jacuzzi and Steam Room, then back to the room for… well… a “bath” and a “nap”. We certainly weren’t going to waste an opportunity without interruption from the kids.

Much relaxed we strolled downstairs for a drink on the terrace before being led to the table. A chef with pretensions often has a special menu. It’s a show off piece where he can weave tastes and textures together. There are no rules, but generally, there are not less than eight and we’ve had as many as twelve courses. Each is very small mind, and the best prepared ones just leave you contently full, not bloated. Some day I shall tell the tale of the pigs trotter and the ruining of an evening, but not today.

This was ten courses, some average, some absolutely exquisite. Set off with a Spanish White and an Italian Red, plus a good port for the pudding courses, it was fabulous. Three of the dishes were memorable, and head straight to the boy’s taste hall of fame. It’s unusual for a chef to put more than one aspect of a meal into my mental food heaven list, but this one had three.

The first was a small square of organic farmed salmon. If you’ve had that you know it has quite a pale colour. Because no dies are used, it almost doesn’t look like salmon. In this case is was just warmed though, so was translucent, then was placed on a bed of spiced lentils with a swirl of smoked banana beside. Don’t ask me how you smoke a banana, I haven’t a clue (though I will find out, its now a mission (a number of impractical suggestions come to mind)), but it was a superb taste on its own. The salmon mixed with the lentils and the banana was almost indescribable. Heaven, true art on a plate.

The second bit of memorabilia was a foi gras. This is one of my guilty pleasures, but it is also a dish with a bad reputation. From a reputable farm, the geese have a better existence certainly than a battery chicken, and probably of what passes for free range in this country (which is a marketing gimmick, often it means they’re loose in a barn, but can still have less than a square foot of space to live in). A proper foi gras goose lives most of its life free ranging outside, pecking at seeds, grass and insects (helps the flavour see). Only in its last few weeks is it forced. Even this isn’t so bad. I’ve deliberately gone to see it, and the geese are not forced at all, they quite happily come up and extend their necks to get the fill of corn down their throats, the greedy things that they are.

So, I eat foi gras. This dish shall live as the gold standard preparation. The liver was perfectly grilled, just caramelised on the outside. It was served with a truffle sauce and a cube of sherry jelly. I can still taste it as I write.

The third hall of fame item was a cucumber and lime ice cream. I’ve had these sorts of scientific taste dishes before, and often the supposedly surprising taste is overwhelmed. The cucumber wasn’t, it was a clear taste and smell of the ice cream. All I can say is that I shall experiment and experiment again until I can recreate it. Both of us thought it was marvellous.

So, the meal took four hours, two bottles of wine and two glasses of very nice port thank you. Plus hours of conversation. LL and I are blessed that we still enjoy talking to each other. Despite, or perhaps because of our history there is always lots to discuss. We went for a short walk in the balmy evening through the garden, then strolled back up to bed. No naughtiness was had, but we did fall contentedly asleep in each others arms.

Next morning we had a slow lazy wake up (ahh… some naughtiness was had). Then a perfectly prepared cooked breakfast and another fun drive home with the roof down. We got back to a quiet house, until the kids jumped out with cards and were led triumphantly to the table where a birthday cake, clearly made and decorated by children, was waiting. LL nearly cried.

So, money can’t buy you happiness. Three children singing heartily off key and a badly prepared cake did that. It can put you in the mood for it though.


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