Monday, April 14, 2014

Almost Dinner in Paris

Maybe it was the flowers 

Or the linens and china

It may have been the handmade menus  

Or the candlelight

Maybe it was the champagne

Or the blinis and smoked salmon

It might have been the dark chocolate 

Or the little ramekins ready to go into the oven

Maybe it was the zucchini vichyssoise 

Or the artichoke tart and salad

It may have been the cheese course

Or the little chocolate cakes

Or possibly the party favors

But all together, it was a night to remember

About six months ago a friend and I donated a French Dinner Party to be auctioned off at a fundraiser. A lovely couple bought it and once we put our calendars together, it was scheduled for last weekend. The pressure was on! Our goal was to make this experience as special as possible for our generous guests. We wanted the evening to feel a bit like -- cue the music -- "April in Paris." We cooked for days and on Saturday night set the table and lit the candles. The flowers were from Hollyflora and the table linens from Heather Taylor Home. Blue and white china felt like the perfect choice for spring. The party favors were filled with French Macarons from a local patisserie.

Our guests arrived and after champagne and appetizers in the garden we sat down for dinner. It was a culinary adventure and a little trip to France. We made new friends, had some great conversation, and  got the chance to make some exciting French food. Our main course was filet of beef with red wine sauce, a french potato gratin and spring asparagus. I loved cooking with a kindred spirit who enjoys nothing better than poring over cookbooks and figuring out a menu as much as I do. Our two-hour planning lunch amidst piles of cookbooks and notes was a highlight of the experience. I got an education in French cuisine. It was a magical spring night filled with joie de vivre. Hopefully our guests felt that for a few hours at least they were transported to "the city of lights." As Audrey Hepburn once said, "Paris is always a good idea." That night we all became Francophiles!

Go here for the recipe for Zucchini Vichyssoise
And here for the recipe for Bittersweet Molten Chocolate Cakes

If you are a Francophile and love to cook (those two often go together), check out this new cookbook by David Lebovitz, My Paris Kitchen. I just picked up a copy from my neighborhood bookstore and from my quick perusal it looks as if it is both a cookbook and a love letter to Paris.

Passez une bonne semaine!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Culinary Adventures

Table set for our French dinner party

I hope you had a good weekend. This weekend found us hosting a French dinner party that we and our friends donated to a fundraiser last fall. A lovely couple bought it, we finally established a date that worked for everyone, and my friend and I spent most of last week planning and cooking. I had intended to write about it yesterday but somehow felt a bit under the weather. Hmm... I wonder if it was the six course French meal we consumed on Saturday night or the superb wine pairings our friend brought to serve with each course. I tried to compose my blog post but instead spent most of the day resting or wandering from thing to thing. I plan to write about it later in the week. Here is where I spent a good part of yesterday...

Reading this book

"Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty that seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress" is the opening line of Middlemarch. I have been getting to know Dorothea Brooke, Mr. Casaubon, Lydgate, Rosamund Vincy, Mary Garth, and young Ladislaw and feel connected to all of them. They are some of the characters who reside in Middlemarch, the provincial English village at the heart of George Eliot's masterpiece. I am half way through the book and loving it. And what a treat to be reading this lovely Penguin edition. Have you seen this Hardcover Classic series by Penguin? Go here to learn more.

Perusing this blog

Photo via here

Yes, the lovely Sophie Dahl of cookbook fame now has a blog. It is called At The Table and it is just as enchanting and beautiful as she is. Take a look. It is a little like wandering through the landscape of the English novel "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith. Go here to see Sophie's recipes for homey desserts such as banana bread and peanut butter fudge, a video on the ancient art of book binding, and a list of "British Boltholes" -- don't you love that expression -- where you can enjoy the out-of-doors in comfort  -- lovely farms, cabins, and even luxurious tree houses to check into and spend the weekend. Wait until you see these tree houses! Look under the "Adventure" category on her blog.

Catching up with this newspaper article

Photo via here

A great travel piece about Oxford, England. The setting for the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and the Inspector Morse mysteries by Colin Dexter, this beautiful town has so much more to it than just the university. Go here to read more.

Contemplating this beauty

Our garden is producing some amazing irises right now

Checking on the new roses

The Joseph's Coat Rose is starting to take hold

Dreaming of a fall trip

Lake Buttermere in Cumbria, England

My husband is reading the biography of Woodrow Wilson, Wilson, by A. Scott Berg and wandered into the kitchen yesterday to read me a quote. Wilson wrote, "There remained no spot in the world in which I am so completely at rest and peace as in the lake country." I began looking up information on the Lake District of England. Did you know that after the film "Miss Potter" came out a few years ago, tourism in this part of England skyrocketed? I would love to visit.

Admiring my blue and white Burleigh tea set bought at Fortnum and Mason last year

And wondering when I will have occasion to use it

Finding the prettiest scones to serve when I do

Rose and saffron scones -- go here for the recipe.

Buying ranunculuses at the market

They practically arranged themselves!

And finding this in the mail

Can't wait to read it...doesn't she look gorgeous!

By the way, it really was a great party and the people who bought it brought some lovely friends. We spent last week cooking up a storm. I can't wait to share all the recipes. To be continued...

In the meantime, here is Sophie Dahl's recipe for banana bread:


Monday, March 31, 2014

Keeping It Young

The dining room at Alice Temperley's country house, Cricket Court, in Somerset, England
Photo via here

This weekend I had a serious case of Anglophilia. It started when I saw this article in the New York Times about Alice Temperley's country house, Cricket Court, in Somerset, England. She lives there with her husband and young son. She is the British fashion designer whose romantic, feminine and lacy frocks would look perfect worn at a summer garden party in the Somerset hills. I love this dining room (shown above) and the way the outside and inside are so connected. The English do this so well. I also love the hand-painted wallpaper and giant papier-mache foxglove, a touch of English eccentricity that gives the room a sense of humor. Can't you just imagine characters from an Angela Thirkell novel wandering in and out of this space?

Alice Temperley sketching her bridal collection ( left) and playing with her son and nephew (right)
Photo via here

The house has a rich history. It was built by William the Conqueror for his brother, rebuilt after a fire at the beginning of the 18th century, and was once home to the exiled Leo Tolstoy. Alice Temperley's love of textiles is seen throughout; her study and one of her bathrooms have pieces of vintage fabric hanging in the windows. The house is filled with wit and whimsy. Go here to read more.

The home of Jemma Kidd and her family in Hampshire

The next country retreat I spotted was in the April issue of Elle Decor. Another historic home, this one dates from the 18th century and is part of an estate that once belonged to the Duke of Wellington. Jemma Kidd, a former model and now a make-up artist and her husband Arthur Wellsley, Earl of Mornington, live here with their two young children. Outside the countryside is green and lush, thanks to the English rain. And inside the rooms make you want to settle in with a good book and a cup of tea. I love how this young family moved into a venerable English home and managed to make it look youthful and fresh. Take a look:

Jemma Kidd with her twins

The drawing room

The sitting room

The entrance

The guest bedroom

A bathroom

The library

 Do you notice a touch of red in almost every room? That's one of the elements that makes this house a warm and welcoming place. Filled with family heirlooms, whimsical fabrics, vases of flowers and loads of books, the house feels cheerful, collected and lived-in. The interior designer has done a fabulous job combining a romantic English country look with a twenty-first century sensibility. Go here to read more.

Photos via here

Prince George at eight months
Photo via here

And finally, speaking of adorable young English families, there was this. A photo that was released just this weekend. It is the most recent shot of the royal baby and his parents at their home in Kensington Palace. Can it be that eight months have already gone by? Pretty cute!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring in Bloom

Photo via here

Do you know about the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden? In mid-April the pink Japanese cherry blossoms take over Brooklyn's Botanic Garden and create this breathtaking scene. Go here to learn more. The website has a time-lapse video created from 3,000 digital photos, one taken every three minutes from April 8 to April 26, 2008. If you love blossoms, watch this and you will be in heaven.

The British playwright and novelist J.B. Priestly, who by his own admission was a bit of a curmudgeon, became emotional at the sight of spring blossoms:

"Blossom -- apple, pear, cherry, plum, almond blossom -- in the sun...after fifty years this delight in the foaming branches is unchanged. I believe that if I lived to be a thousand and were left with some glimmer of eyesight, this delight would remain...At least once very spring on a fine morning...we stare again at the blossom and are back in Eden."

This quote is from the book Delight by J.B. Priestley. Do you know about this book? It is a gem. About sixty years ago, shortly after the end of the Second World War, Priestly put together this collection of essays in an effort to boost national morale. It celebrates the simple pleasures of life and reminds us that it's often the little things that make us the happiest. It is funny, wise, and beautifully written. Get yourself a copy and keep it on your bookshelf to dip into when you are feeling a little blah. It is guaranteed to brighten up your day. 

 And speaking of "delights," I have just discovered that my spring trip to New York will coincide with the cherry blossom display at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I have never been before and now can't wait to visit! 

What garden events are you looking forward to this spring?

Have a wonderful weekend!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Spending an Afternoon with Queen Victoria

The film "The Young Victoria"

Ever since reading Lytton Strachey's 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, I have had a thing for the tiny but formidable queen. That book gave us the full story of her life --  her childhood, her marriage to Albert, and her long reign as queen and empress of the British empire. But the story was far from dry. It was entertaining and delightful, written in a sparkling prose. In fact, one reviewer called the book "one of the surpassingly beautiful prose achievements of our time." It brought the great monarch to life like nothing else had before and portrayed her as a real person with some endearing qualities. It was an affectionate biography, laced through with Strachey's trademark irony, wit, and irreverence. It was and still is considered one of the great biographies. I love that Strachey dedicated it to Virginia Woolf.

After seeing the fabulous new photography exhibit at The Getty Museum -- A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography  -- I pulled out my copy of "Queen Victoria" to take a look. I remembered that even though Strachey gave a definitive picture of the queen, warts and all, he seemed to emphasize some of her more charming qualities --

For one thing, she was madly in love with her husband Prince Albert. Though not at first. After being her own mistress for two years as queen, she struggled to maintain her independence as monarch while giving in to her love for her husband. Strachey tells a famous anecdote about their marriage:

"One story, indeed survives, ill-authenticated and perhaps mythical, yet summing up, as such stories often do, the central facts of the case. When in wrath, the Prince one day had locked himself in his room, Victoria, no less furious, knocked on the door to be admitted. 'Who is there?' he asked. "The Queen of England' was the answer. He did not move, and again there was a hail of knocks. The question and the answer were repeated many times; but at last there was a pause, and then a gentle knocking. 'Who is there?' came once more the relentless question. But this time the reply was different. 'Your wife, Albert.' And the door was immediately opened." Once Victoria accepted her love for Albert, he became her everything.

After his death in 1861, Victoria mourned him for the rest of her life and retreated from public view for ten years. She allowed herself to be photographed only as a grieving widow, dressed in black and looking bereft. The public expressed its sorrow by buying photographs of the late prince along with those of the widowed Victoria.

Another thing -- her heart was in the Highlands. She loved all things Scottish and her happiest times were spent in Scotland with her husband and children. Everything about the Highlanders delighted her -- their customs, their dress, their dances, their musical instruments. When she and Prince Albert built Balmoral Castle they decorated it in the Scottish style, covering everything with tartans. The Balmoral tartan, designed by the prince and the Victoria tartan, designed by the queen, were featured in every room. When in Scotland, the queen and the prince would go on expeditions through mountains and across rivers, led by their loyal servant John Brown. They loved the adventure of it and would travel incognito, meeting the locals.

And the third endearing quality I remember from the biography was that she was a devoted mother. She loved her children and she and Albert were attentive parents. As the nursery kept growing -- they had nine children -- Victoria and Albert became obsessed with the welfare of their children, especially their education. Their lives were organized around the care of the children. And the public loved it. As Strachey writes,

"the queen was now once more extremely popular. The middle-classes, in particular, were pleased. They liked a love-match; they liked a household which combined the advantages of royalty and virtue, and in which they seemed to see, reflected as in some resplendent looking-glass, the ideal image of the very lives they led themselves. Their own existences, less exalted, but oh! so soothingly similar, acquired an added excellence...from the early hours, the regularity, the plain tuckers, the round games, the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding...It was indeed a model court...The Victorian Age was in full swing."

In her later years Victoria had a bracelet made featuring the pictures of all of her grandchildren. You can see this bracelet as well as other examples of her private life at the photography exhibition at the Getty Museum. That is where I recently spent a lovely afternoon. The Getty is one of the treasures of L.A.

Exhibition at The Getty Museum

The two themes of this exhibition, Queen Victoria and the history of photography, are surprisingly connected. On January 1839, photography was announced to the world. Two years before, the nineteen-year-old Victoria became queen. There was a relationship between the new art of photography and the young queen, whose passion for collecting photographs began in the 1840's and whose photographic image came to represent an entire age. This show at the Getty gives us a peak at the queen's private and public life, showcasing her images as wife, mother, widow, and empress.

Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to have her life recorded by the camera. The Getty exhibition looks at her role in shaping the history of photography as well as photography's role in shaping her image. There are many loans from the Royal Collection in this show. They include private photos of the queen and her family never seen by the public before. It is fascinating!

Queen Victoria with some of her children

The beautiful book from the exhibition. You can order it here.

I loved this exhibition. I learned so much about the early years of photography. And it was fun revisiting the story of Queen Victoria as told by Lytton Strachey in his famous biography. If you are interested in learning more about Victoria, pick up a copy of this book. It is such a delightful read and a great introduction to this show at the Getty.

All photos except for the first two via here

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pretty as a Picture

I am in the midst of decorating my guest bedroom and having so much fun picking out fabrics and wallpaper. I have been looking around on various websites for design ideas and found these absolutely delectable rooms. Living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and even a little craft room --  they all share two things in common. They are insanely pretty and evoke the freshness of spring. Spending time in any of them would feel like living in a little garden. I am so inspired. Take a look. You just may find the perfect detail to bring spring into your home.

Happy Spring!