A Country Easter
Like the vicissitudes of spring weather (one minute April showers, the next clear blue skies), Easter is changeable, falling on a different date each year. Here in deepest Somerset, in southwest England, it comes around lilac time, when spring is finally sprung and roots, shoots and bulbs are burgeoning and blossoming. When the weather holds, my family's Easter lunch is held under the cherry tree in the meadow that abuts our millstream. But spring rains are not the only uncontrollable feature of my life. My work as a documentary filmmaker and food writer takes me on the road so much that when I am home, such celebrations are sacred. And when my brother Daniel Day-Lewis can join us--he is even more peripatetic than I am, as his career in the movie world demands--the feasting is taken far more seriously and usually goes on for several days.
A love of food was something Daniel and I grew up with and have always accepted as one of the most important things in life. We discovered the joys of a good table on the Easter trips we took throughout childhood to our grandparents' home in Sussex, where their cook Rhoda reigned supreme. Huge ribs of succulent pink beef, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables from their enormous kitchen garden were brought to the table. Then there were old-fashioned nursery puddings: lemon meringue pie with a crackly cloud of a top, queen's pudding made with an unctuous lemony custard and homemade raspberry jam, and syrupy treacle tart. We would sit at the table with our cousins having roast-potato-eating competitions and plotting conspiratorially against the grown-ups.
We looked forward to those traditional Easter lunches as we did to the more relaxed informality of the holiday picnic, when table manners were dispensed with along with the table. As children, Daniel and I endured more achingly damp picnics than we can ever begin to remember. On our visits to western Ireland, we would trek along the ruggedly beautiful coast with a picnic from our hotel: packets of tomato sandwiches leaking their watery juices, slices of "railway cake" (a dry fruitcake we detested) and anemic apples, which were virtually the only fruit in those days to make it across the perilous roads from Dublin. We hid in the dunes from the wind and rain until the sun agreed to come out. Then we raced with our father into the breakers, warmed by an inner heat that only the ice cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean can inspire, until we fell exhausted onto the shore. Papa would unscrew the top from his hip flask and give us a bracing slug of Irish whiskey, followed by the warming spice of a ginger-nut biscuit.
Now I relive those childhood memories with my own three young children, Miranda, Harry and Charissa, by throwing an alfresco Easter lunch in my garden in Somerset.
On Easter morning, Miranda and Charissa sit at the kitchen table, blowing out and painting eggs. Meanwhile, I boil, peel and dip hens' eggs in saffron to turn them a gaudy crocus color, leaving a few of the rusty-hued stamens clinging to them. Next I boil clutches of quail eggs, their tiny sky-blue shells blotted with sepia brown and black. Even the smallest child takes pleasure in peeling the delicate shells and dipping each egg in savory celery salt.
Sometimes we roast a huge organic turkey, but this year I found beautifully plump, ivory-fleshed turbot and served them with a sauce Bretonne, made with delicate chervil and peppery watercress, an iron-rich tonic for the blood. I accompanied the turbot with a Mediterranean dish of braised fennel, a natural partner to white fish, that I spiked with fruity cardamom and black olives. Finally, I simmered tiny pebbles of Jersey Royal potatoes, their delicate skins scrubbed and made aromatic, with bay, thyme, saffron and chicken stock. I also made a fragrant rhubarb and elderflower jelly, sharp with the juice of the new season's fruit, bits of which hang suspended like fragile pink jewels beneath its surface.
The egg hunt after Easter lunch is mandatory, with the grown-ups taking as much delight in their task of concealment as the children do in their hunger to find and eat as many chocolate eggs as they can. Undeterred by the surfeit of chocolate, the grown-ups are kept outside to play the less well-known sport of "egg rolling." The game is said to have arisen to commemorate the rolling away of the stone that sealed Christ's tomb. The players line up with painted hard-boiled eggs at the top of the hill. If they and the egg are still intact by the time they reach the bottom, they will have good luck for a year.
Then it's time to return inside to a blazing apple-wood fire and a serious English tea, an Easter tradition I shared with my grandparents that I couldn't fail to honor.
Tamasin Day-Lewis is the food writer for the London Daily Telegraph. She is also the author of West of Ireland Summers, A Cookbook (Roberts Rinehart).