Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Garden Memories

Now that March is almost here, I am getting excited for the arrival of Spring and spending some inspiring and peaceful time in the garden.  Many garden tours will be happening all over the country in the months to come and one of the most anticipated is the Robinson Gardens Tour here in Los Angeles. But right now I am obsessed with the gardens of England that I saw on a recent Garden Tour of the English countryside.  I was enchanted by the gorgeous English gardens that I visited, especially the one at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and looking at these images takes me there again and fills me with the promise of Spring.  Come with me as I visit one of the most amazing gardens in England created by the legendary writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.

In the distance, the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle where Vita wrote every morning and evening after gardening all day

How romantic --  the idea of discovering an abandoned castle that dates from the mid-sixteenth century, falling in love with it and spending years restoring it.  This is what English writer Vita Sackville-West decided to do when she found Sissisnghurst Castle in the county of Kent on April 3, 1930.  She lost her heart to this romantic ruin and purchased it.

Sissinghurst Castle

Vita had never recovered from that fact that due to being a woman she had been unable to inherit her ancestral home Knole, where she had spent her childhood.  Vita had grown up at Knole, a huge fifteenth-century palace spread over seven and a half acres and located in beautiful Kent.   It was called the "calendar house" because it included 4 square towers, 100 fireplaces, 52 staircases, and 365 rooms.  It was in the Knole chapel that she married her husband Harold Nicolson in 1913. This ancient estate had been in the family for hundreds of years.   Knole was Vita's passion and she was devastated when she lost it.  Instead of going to Vita, the only child of Lord Sackville, Knole went to Vita's male cousin -- sound familiar?  This ancestral home that she lost was Vita's "Downton Abbey."

And so she filled the void with the purchase and restoration of Sissinghurst Castle.  When the project was complete, she and her husband Harold Nicolson set about creating the magnificent gardens on the grounds of this estate. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Sissinghurst are the "Garden Rooms," enclosures of different themed plantings that allow an intimacy and formality as you wander from one garden room to another.  If you are ever in this part of England, especially in the month of June, do not miss this very special place, one of the most gorgeous you will ever see.  

A view of the gardens from the Tower
The "garden rooms" can be clearly seen from this aerial view

And from another angle

 The White Garden

 More garden beauty at Sissinghurst...

Vita was a well-respected writer and wrote many excellent books, including "All Passion Spent" which I wrote about here.  Her book "The Edwardians" was a celebration of her nostalgia for Knole and a bestseller.  The money she made from it allowed her to buy Sissinghurst.   But she is probably most famous for the gardens she created at Sissinghurst. She was considered a renowned authority on gardens and wrote gardening articles for the London "Observer" for fifteen years.  It seems that nothing brought her greater joy than the paradise she created at Sissinghurst.   Perhaps it is her greatest legacy.

Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst in 1960
Photo via here

If  you visit be sure to allow enough time to walk all around this glorious property.  You may even be able to imagine Vita striding about the grounds in her riding pants tucked into high boots, often with a long string of pearls dangling from her neck.  She would be surveying the gardens and evaluating what needed to be done next.  Her ancestral love of land found its full expression at Sissinghurst Castle and she was determined to protect it from "any builder-aggressor" and save it for future generations.   

Friday, February 24, 2012

Beautiful Books

"I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them -- with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself."
-- Eudora Welty

I have always been in love with books, with their actual physical presence.  I know that this is why I have not been able to read them on any of the electronic devices.  I need to hold a book when I read it.  I also love to look at books and display them around my house because many of them are just so beautiful.  In fact, looking at the stack of books by Colette and E.M Forster in the photo above, I could easily get inspired to decorate an entire room based on these book jackets.  I would love to recreate these raspberry and blue colors on a wall somewhere in my house.

Here are some beautiful books that have been inspiring me lately.  These books have pattern, color and texture.  Their patina takes me to different time periods and places in my imagination.  Isn't there a sense of excitement and inspiration when you see them, for not only do they promise to take us on a journey, but their physical beauty has endless possibilities for decorating all the nooks and crannies of our houses. 

These favorite classics have just been reissued by Penguin Threads.  The covers actually feel embroidered.

The cover of this book about Charleston is decorated in a typical Bloomsbury fashion with its cross hatching in the margins and a drawing of the house set within a decorative circle.  It makes me smile.

Here is a golden yellow invitation from Vita Sackville-West to join her in the garden at Sissinghurst Castle and receive her expert gardening advice.  These four volumes contain the articles she wrote in her weekly gardening column for the "Observer" over the course of 15 years. 

These stately volumes of Shakespeare's plays and poems add literary cachet to a library

I love this stack of old cookbooks and the way they beckon us to faraway places and cuisines 

This equally inviting stack of more modern cookbooks is an invitation to get cooking, now!

I marvel at the beauty of this cover of "Madame Bovary," with a new translation that came out last year

This slim volume of autobiographical essays by Elizabeth Bowen is one of my treasures.  I love its femininity.

And for a dose of glamour, the cover of this book about Deborah Mitford has a stunning design.  She was the least known of the famous Mitford sisters and has a fascinating story to tell.

These two larger than life personalities and dear friends -- Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey --  write each other gossipy letters in this attractive book with its green and red dust jacket.  It's hard to believe these two were engaged to be married, an engagement that was wisely and quickly called off. 

The colors and pattern of this vivid book make it stand out on my book shelf.  This is the American edition of "Seducers in Ecuador" by Vita Sackville-West.

Some happiness in the kitchen

And just a little more

Monday, February 20, 2012

Do We Need a Support Group?

It's over!  And wasn't it wonderful.  But first, be advised, spoilers to follow if you haven't seen the finale of "Downton Abbey" yet.   

 The last episode finally brought Cousin Matthew and Lady Mary together in a magical snowy scene outside Downton Abbey as he got down on his knee and asked her to marry him.

What will we do without our Sunday nights at "Downton Abbey."  I know many people who will miss it, including myself.  I will miss those dinners around the dining room table with the family dressed in formal attire, the men in white tie and the women in gowns.  Can you imagine getting dressed up like that every night for dinner in your own home?

I will miss the exquisite library with its leather bound books where so many great scenes happened, including the exchange of Christmas presents in the season finale.  This was the room where Lord Grantham was endlessly working at his desk or reading the paper and Mr. Carson or Mrs. Hughes were forever popping in to inform his lordship of some new crisis among the staff or on the estate.  

I will miss Lady Mary and her complicated personality.  She had that icy aristocratic demeanor in the beginning of the show (and maybe it never completely left her), but as the series went along the depths of her character were revealed and we ended up understanding her better and liking her more. 

And oh, the anguish and frustration of the star-crossed romance between Cousin Matthew and Lady Mary.  It's resolution was a glorious moment.

I will  miss the servants such as Thomas and Mr. Bates and their complicated relationships with the Crawleys.  Thomas, who was found to be a thief, is later forgiven after being wounded in the war and is welcomed back to the house.  Lord Grantham and the family seem to feel a responsibility towards him and the other servants.  We feel that the Crawleys will take care of the them forever.     

I will miss Maggie Smith more than anybody else, because her memorable lines and verbal zingers were delicious and nobody could have played the Dowager Lady Grantham with greater confidence, humor and talent.  She is one of England's greatest treasures. 

I will miss the beautiful English countryside and the sumptuous costumes.  Did anyone notice Lady Mary's lovely green hat in the shooting party scene?  

I will miss the family dynamics of the show.  There are, after all, two "families" that live at Downtown Abbey.  Lord and Lady Grantham are the parent figures that preside upstairs and Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are the "parents" downstairs.  It was fascinating to watch all the interactions within both families.

I will miss the two villains, Thomas and O'Brien.  They were so good at being evil.  Though O'Brien's feelings of guilt eventually lead to some kindness and empathy in season two.  And even Thomas had some sympathetic moments.

And oh, Mr. Bates, your silent suffering, dignity and selflessness will be missed.

 I will miss the coming together of the Crawleys and the servants to support Mr. Bates.

And I will miss the Crawley sisters with all their hopes, dreams and jealousies. 

Here is how one group is dealing with the loss of "Downton Abbey."

A friend snapped this photo of a flyer at a library in Vermont.  A "Downton Abbey" support group will meet in the "cozy" reading room of a Vermont library.  How fun!  Costumes are optional.  This could be the answer for all of us who loved the show.  There is really nothing like a costume drama for escapist entertainment.  Hopefully the wait won't be too long until season three.  In the meantime, I need to find a good old-fashioned, sprawling English novel to read.  Or maybe a marathon viewing of the excellent costume dramas by Merchant/ Ivory.    
Can't wait for season three!  

All photos of "Downton Abbey" via here

Thursday, February 16, 2012

English Country Kitchens

I have always had a thing for English country kitchens.  They just exude coziness.  The Aga stove, the larder cupboard, the dresser, the copper pots, the storage baskets, the big farmhouse table, the hearth, and the promise of homemade jams and freshly baked breads.  They make me want to pull out my mixing bowls and whip up some scones and brew a pot of tea.  I spotted these images recently and they take me to that place of comfort and warmth that the best country kitchens convey.  After all, isn't a country kitchen where we all want to hang out?  I can imagine a cook setting aside a day each week for baking in these kitchens, producing scones, pies and  cakes --  the baked goods that have always made an English tea so delicious.  

Pale blue Aga stove set within a brick recess 

A larder cupboard provides storage for baking supplies, as well as crockery and linens.  I love the blue and yellow colors that have been used here.  The floral linens add a prettiness to the look. 

Country-style gingham shade on the door

English cheeses like Stilton are often kept in a cool space, stored in a cheese safe like this glass dome

 A door rack adds additional space for spices, herbs and dry goods and looks so charming

All ready for baking day, marble counters look great in a country kitchen
 These pretty beaded linen covers for the jugs add to the old-fashioned look

A pretty magnetic board to keep shopping lists and other materials visible

Jams and pickles are canned and covered with decorative lids, pretty labels and charming fabrics

This storage piece for an apple harvest allows the air to circulate

Great storage ideas for the pantry
All photos above via Country House and Interiors

Ben Pentreath owns a home decor shop in London, Ben Pentreath Ltd., and spends his weekends at his lovely country home in Dorset.  He is also the author of one of my favorite blogs, Inspiration/Ben Pentreath.  I love reading about his adventures in the Dorset countryside.  This dresser displays his lovely china plates and Wedgewood biscuitware terrine.

With many of us going into nesting mode in the winter, there is a comforting feeling of warming ourselves, both body and soul, in the kitchen.  

I pull out my coziest country-style cookbooks for inspiration.

One of my favorites is "Home Cooking" by Laurie Colwin.  She was one of the best food writers around.  I read her articles for many years in "Gourmet Magazine" with great affection.  She cooked honest and delicious food without any pretense and her feelings about being in the kitchen often resonated with  me.  She wrote:

"When people enter the kitchen, they often drag their childhood in with them.  I was brought up on English children's books, in which teatime and cottage life play an important role.  These formed my earliest idea of comfort:  a tea table in a cozy cottage.  As an adult I have reinforced these childhood notions by reading English cookbooks as if they were novels..."

When I read these words I knew I had met a kindred spirit in Laurie Colwin.  My influences were also English books, especially English novels.

English food writer Elizabeth David is another one of my favorite food writers.  In "Elizabeth David's Christmas" she gives a recipe for "Sugared Oranges" that sounds delicious:

Sugared Oranges
"Halve and quarter the oranges, scoop the flesh from the pith and skin with a serrated knife and, adding white sugar, store the orange segments in a wide covered glass jar in the refrigerator, adding to them whenever you have a moment to prepare a few extra.
Serve the oranges chilled, in deep wineglasses.  Pour a tablespoon of Kirsch or Cointreau into each glass just before the meal, or perhaps a little lemon juice and a sprinkling of freshly chopped mint leaves."

This recent book on the domestic life of Bloomsbury promises an interesting look into the kitchen of Virginia Woolf who had houses in London and the Sussex countryside.   

I love reading Melissa Clark's column "A Good Appetite" in the New York Times especially at this time of the year when she features comforting country recipes.  Recently she wrote about these savory scones and suggests serving them with stews and soups.   Here is the recipe for her "Savory Scones with Onion, Currants and Caraway."  They would be so good with a great lentil soup.

And finally here is the English country kitchen that we see every Sunday night on Masterpiece Theatre.  I love this scene in "Downton Abbey" when Lady Sybil decides to learn how to cook.  Those kitchen scenes with Mrs. Patmore and Daisy bustling around and producing meals are some of my favorite scenes on the show.

I am inspired to get cooking.  How about you?