Is there anything as beautiful as the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields accompanying the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, on Bach Arias? Possibly not. At least not for me on this Friday.
Nine years ago this fall I sat in that candle-lit church off of Trafalgar Square and floated on Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’, my back against the hard wooden pew, transported. The next day I went to Scotland and spent my birthday on a highland island in the blazing sun.
I miss my piano today, as the sun casts its long fingers over the rooftops and the whale weathervane up the street spins in the breeze. I miss my hands safe and cool over the keys, the smell of the dark wood. I remember telling my friend Danny once, as we drank wine on a roof top bar in DC, that sometimes what aches the most is that nostalgia for things past, for things we wished had happened, for something indefinable, for things we miss even if we never experienced them (I don’t know; it made sense in that moment.). This week I miss: living abroad, daily practice, the golden hour on a January beach, tea in Cambridge, a small white house surrounded by vineyards, a lighthouse lashed by rain during a September New England thunderstorm. Some of these things I have experienced and some I have not.
I took piano lessons for 10 years and that (near) daily practice I’ve forgotten, along with the weekly lessons in a dim, cluttered room in a house with a wide porch. I would sit there after mine with my homework listening to my brother run through his scales (he has always been a much better player than me), thinking how it might be to live in town. I was so lucky in my teachers: my piano teacher worked us hard (though lovingly) and my band director even harder. I don’t look back on those experiences with resentment – quite the contrary. I am grateful. If we could all be held to such high a standard, who knows what we could accomplish? (Though – I have dreams in which I haven’t prepared enough for my lesson and my teacher sighs with disappointment as she used to when I admittedly had been busy doing other things and not focused enough.) I send her a Christmas card every year; perhaps one year I will receive one in return.
First learning, at 8 or so years old, my mom set the timer for a half-hour and even though I wanted to play so very badly – had begged for it – I would watch my brother playing outside and grumbled over having to sit in tethered to the clock. And then he was stuck practicing, too, and I wasn’t so alone in it and finally I came not to wish to be elsewhere but absolutely present there at the keyboard. I was never a great player, but I loved it. Music seemed to weave its way into the warp and woof of me when I was little. I remember the day the rental piano was delivered: I lay in the field next to our house waiting for the truck to deliver it, anxiously peering through the oleander bushes ’til it arrived. I had wanted to learn to play so keenly; still I can’t say why, only that I did.
We had our twice-yearly piano recitals at the Community Church in Sebastopol, a beautiful, quiet space north of town marked by dark wood and stained glass. During high school my brother played in the band and we’d go to Christmas Eve services with what seemed to be half the town; we weren’t religious, but I liked going. I liked that feeling of community, of communion, of closeness. Still – one needn’t have religion to feel that: I feel it at Giants baseball games, too. So.
After the recitals there was a reception at which my teacher always praised us profusely yet judiciously and then we’d eat cake and snacks. There would always be a sort of non-alcoholic sweet punch that I didn’t love but would drink lots of anyway. It was the thing to do. After, my family would go out to dinner to celebrate.
This is a terribly roundabout way to write that I have been thinking about that nonalcoholic punch – and nonalcoholic cocktails in general – because one of my best friends is pregnant (with a girl!), and so I have been trying to come up with delicious things to treat her with, including non-alcoholic drinks. I am well-versed in punch-like things with alcohol (next time, perhaps, I’ll share a recipe for a delicious white sangria with summer fruit), but I don’t really indulge in non-alcoholic fancy beverages as I’m mostly a straight-up water or orange juice kinda girl (and lately tart cherry juice, which is supposed to be good for muscles worked over by running). But we had them over for dinner last week and I wanted to make a special drink for her.
With that old, piano-recital punch in the back of my mind, I invested in some good seltzer (they, I think, having incorporated bubbly water or ginger ale into that version), mint, and strawberries. I’d been inspired by a recipe on smitten kitchen for a blackberry gin fizz; mine would be strawberry and served with and without gin. I was going for something light and refreshing but still very fruity and seasonal (blackberries not being quite ripe on the vine out here just yet). I added a little extra sparkling water in place of the gin for her, because she does love sparkling wine and also because it’s delicious, and refrained from drinking the whole batch before they came over. I do love a good R+G of course, but this a close equivalent. I might actually choose this over plain old water if pressed (well, maybe. I really do drink a lot of water.).
We sipped our drinks (some of us perhaps slipped a bit of gin into our glasses), ate roast chicken and Morrocan vegetables and couscous, devoured generous slices of caramel cake. We toasted to upcoming adventures and old friends, new life and things yet to come. If I experienced a wee twinge of nostalgia for my piano I tucked it well away, knowing that such things, after all, are cyclical – London will always be there, as will music, as will strawberries, as will summer. (Also, gin.)
I have a feeling a variety of fruit would work here – I was tempted to use some of the cherries I have stashed in my freezer, and could imagine a few very ripe, pitted peaches being wonderful — but strawberries are so perfect right now and pink and sweet I couldn’t resist. If you do go the alcoholic route here be careful — the mix of strawberry puree and sparkling water is so light and refreshing you will hardly taste the gin, and I could imagine it’s entirely possible to down about 4 of these lovelies without even noticing.
makes 6 drinks
1 pint strawberries, tops cup off and halved
1 tablespoon (or less) honey or sugar
juice from one lime
seltzer or sparkling water (I used lime seltzer, and left out the lime juice)
8 fresh mint leaves, roughly torn
Purée strawberries and sugar in a blender until as liquefied as possible. Add a splash of water and purée until very smooth, thick and liquidy.
Divide the purée between glasses six glasses, add one shot gin to each, if using, and stir to combine. Add ice to glasses then top each with seltzer and a few of the mint leaves. If not using gin, you may up both the quantity of the strawberry mixture and the seltzer or sparkling water.