‘I just want to be sure of you’

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Photo: Hilary Burden | Friends at Gravetye Manor, Sussex, once home to William Robinson

     Do you think leaning on a tree is better than leaning on a friend, or is it the other way around? Seeing friends from the past lately I’m inclined to think they’re on the same par and more precious than money in the bank.

     We worked out, Deb and I, that we hadn’t seen each other for almost a decade. She gave me my first freelance commission on W magazine when I moved to London in the late 80s. That makes her one of my oldest London buddies. When we were single we holidayed together in European cities from Budapest to Nice. More often than not the places we chose revolved around food. For a farewell holiday, before I left London a decade ago, and after seeing Diane Keaton in the movie Something’s Gotta Give, we decided to spend the weekend in Paris – just so we could dine at Le Grand Colbert.

     So when we met up again in London recently, Deb chose Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly Circus, good-valued elegance in the same Parisian brasserie style we’d enjoyed in Paris. We talked over the Prix Fixe menu and the Samedi Plat du Jours featuring Celeri Remoulade, Lapin au Cidre et Pâtes Fraîches and trolley of cheeses. Classic French dishes are like drop pins on a map – you know where you are, even when it’s not your language. Hours’ of conversation had passed without either of us realising until we noticed the Saturday night tables and banquettes had emptied around us.

Although we weren’t expecting to truly catch up because there had been too much time in between, in the end we agreed we made a pretty good job of it. The next day, I told Deb it had been like visiting St Paul’s Cathedral or Uluru for the first time in 10 years. Our friendship was still there, little changed, despite its lack of presence in our lives. Deb thought we were “the same but even better”.

There’s a kind of listening that goes with old friends, and why they should be cherished at all cost, re-visited as often as possible, not for any purpose or intent, or out of duty or due. Years can go by with very little exchange but it’s the true friend that will find a way of turning up eventually like a memory of perfume. It’s a way of taking the temperature of a life, measuring the distance, of how far you’ve come and where you might still go.

Friendships don’t or shouldn’t make headlines. They are the pursuit of a kind of nothingness, a ramble along a path with no particular destination. Then, pause for consideration to stop at this seat, or that, in that pub or the next for a drink that’s not the point of it… And returning only when the balance is in favour of it, signaled by a nod, an eyebrow, a gentle question raised: shall we head back now?

Visiting quintessentially English gardens on this trip, strolling through woodlands and meadows, has brought back memories of Winnie the Pooh and a thought that evokes the best of friendships:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
― A.A. MilneThe House at Pooh Corner

 With new friends I discovered English Sparkling Wine and the South East Wine Route that certainly wasn’t celebrated, and I’m not sure even existed, when I lived here a decade ago. Thankfully, some things do change. Seems it’s not only our Tasmanian Sparkling challenging the dominance of French Champagne. Prosecco and Cava are giving it a run for their money, and it seems “Reef, Beef and Bubbles” is now the up-scaled English version of “Surf n Turf”.

But who would have thought you could taste English vintage bubbles at an English pub? And be spoilt for choice. On the wine list at The Cat Inn in Sussex are six very local varieties alone. Appreciating my interest, Andrew the barman promptly handed me the South East Wine Route map (launched for the first time in April this year), circling his top choices of Sparkling vineyards in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, all a short radius from the pub. He explained that, with warming English summers, acidity levels had been steadily improving, favouring the production of méthode champenoise Sparklings.

Our favourite came from a small vineyard in the folds of the Sussex Downs, first planted by pioneering vigneron Peter Hall in the early 1990s.   One thing the French will always have over the English, though, is a sense of romance as opposed to bald innuendo. Ordering a second glass of our favourite English Sparkling (good value at £6.50 a glass) we found ourselves stifling a giggle asking for another ‘Breaky Bottom Cuvee’.

Our taste was vindicated over Classic Afternoon Tea at too-posh Sketch in Mayfair, where London’s class system (these days based on foreign wealth not just English aristocratic lineage) is thriving. A glass of Pommery added £11 to the set price of £39, while a glass of 2010 Breaky Bottom Cuvée added an astounding £21. Per glass. At that price, you’re compelled to make afternoon tea last the whole day, and would sit there, too, if you weren’t pushed off the table by waiters with attitude after your exactly allotted 90 minutes.

If Brits can’t afford the price of an old-fashioned afternoon tea in an iconic place, they are making do with watching people baking cakes on the telly. One of Britain’s most watched TV programs of the year attracts nearly 10 million viewers a week (almost as popular as the top rating final of Britain’s Got Talent). Series Six of The Great British Bakeoff stars hot British baker Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, former cookery editor of Housewife magazine in the Sixties, whose mission in life this century is to “get everyone baking” – even though why would you when it’s the height of the English summer.
First published in Tasweekend, 29 August, 2015

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