Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A History of the World in 100 Objects

The British Museum is as tremendous as ever, and I was really happy to catch the special exhibit 'Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite' as it was in its final days. Avant-garde Paris art dealer and print publisher Ambroise Vollard was savvy enough to give Picasso his first exhibition in 1901. Picasso wrote of Vollard that "the most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved [more often] than Vollard -- by Cezanne, Renoir, Roualt, Bonnard, Forain, almost everybody...He had the vanity of a woman, that man." The prints that make up the Vollard Suite were commissioned by Vollard when he asked Picasso to produce 100 etchings between 1930 and 1937 in exchange for some pictures. Vollard died in a car crash before the prints were distributed, and the outbreak of World War II delayed their release further still. Dealer Henri Petiet purchased most of the prints from the Vollard estate, and the set acquired by the British Museum comes directly from the heirs of Petiet and has never been shown in public before and is in pristine condition. It was a wonderful show!

Almost just as good as visiting the museum in person is A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (an edition with a slightly different cover than the one shown above was published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2011). I bought this book last year, before it started to receive some attention here in the States (the article 'A History of New York in 50 Objects' by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, 2 September, 2012 is one of the most recent examples inspired by the book). Based on a BBC Radio 4 series, HOTW is just the kind of book (or project) I am crazy about -- it's very similar in spirit, after all, to my A to Z Miscellany in each of my books. MacGregor notes in his Preface that telling history through things is what museums are for, "and because the British Museum has for over 250 years been collecting things from all round the globe, it is not a bad place to start if you want to use objects to tell a history of the world." He also wisely notes that if the history you want to tell doesn't unduly favor one part of humanity, you can't use texts alone because "only some of the world has ever had texts, while most of the world, for most of the time, has not. Writing is one of humanity's later achievements, and until fairly recently even many literate societies recorded their concerns and aspirations not only in writing but in things."

While I do think it's optimal to read this book through as is, one can open it up to any page and easily get lost for an hour. Every single object presented is incredibly fascinating, whether it's an Olduvai stone chopping tool, the standard of Ur, a gold coin of Croesus minted in western Turkey, a Hebrew astrolabe probably from Spain, a Mexican codex map, a Russian Revolutionary plate, or a credit card issued in the United Arab Emirates in 2009 (since they were introduced in the 1950s, credit cards have become a major part of modern life). And to think that all of these are in the permanent collection of the BM is a reminder that this is one of the world's most stellar museums. (And in case you're wondering, the Parthenon sculpture of Centaur and Lapith -- better known as the Elgin Marbles -- is included in these 100 objects; MacGregor doesn't share his view on the matter of whether the Marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in London, but as readers of my book on Athens, the Peloponnese, and the Aegean Islands know, I believe the time has come for them to be on display in Athens.)

Neil MacGregor has been Director of the BM since 2002, and he was previously Director of the National Gallery in London. His book is a masterpiece, and it would also make a great holiday gift.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Apsley House, London

I am stunned that so many weeks have gone by since my last post, and there's no point in apologizing: everyone's busy, everyone has life maintenance, and no one is sitting around eating bons bons.  Certainly not here in New York anyway, where we are still coming to terms with Hurricane Sandy (and will be for a long time to come).  If we constantly apologized for being late, no conversations of substance would ever happen.  So, I'm returning to my last few posts about my trip to England without further ado:

"If you want to understand the history of England, there's no better way than to visit the homes of those who wrote it."  -- English Heritage 

Another highlight in London was Apsley House in London.  Known also as 'No. 1 London,' Apsley House [149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner] was the home of the Duke of Wellington.  I admit my main reason for going there was to see a particular painting, 'The Waterseller of Seville,' painted by Diego Velazquez in 1620-22.  My Mom brought this painting to my attention after reading about it in The Wall Street Journal ('The Compassionate Scoundrel' by Mary Tompkins Lewis, 18 June, 2011).  The painting is magnificent, but Lewis's article really gives the work even more depth.  The painting was the last of Velazquez's bodegones, "an early series of genre scenes from Seville of humble figures engaged in the rituals of food and drink."  Lewis notes that a waterseller -- an aguador -- was a familiar and welcome sight on the dusty streets of 17th century Seville, and he was also "a stock character in picaresque Spanish literature, plays and popular imagery, routinely rendered as a scoundrel or pathetic peddler who operated on the fringes of urban society and hawked his often dubious wares to an unsuspecting public."  

This painting alone is worthy of a journey to Apsley House, but as it happens the mansion is filled with several hundred of the finest works in London (including military memorabilia, a statue of Napoleon by Italian sculptor Canova, a grand 'Battle of Waterloo' painted in 1843 by Sir William Allan, the Saxon Service and Prussian Service porcelain sets, an original pair of Wellington boots, and a pair of candelabra and a silver-gilt shield given to Wellington to celebrate the victory at Waterloo).  'The Waterseller of Seville' is from a group of canvases referred to as the Spanish Royal Collection, which were discovered after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 in the abandoned baggage carriage of Joseph Bonaparte, who was at that time king of Spain.  The works were given to Wellington as rolled-up canvases by King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1816.  Another stunning painting in the Collection is 'The Agony in the Garden' by Correggio -- according to the official guidebook, Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy, thought this was "worth fighting a battle for, and that it should be framed in diamonds."

Wellington -- who became known as the Iron Duke -- passed away in 1852 as a national hero.  Some 200,000 people lined up to view his body lying in state, and he was buried at St. Paul's Cathedral.

The Statue of Achilles (raised in honor of Wellington and funded entirely by British women), Wellington Arch, and Wellington Statue are very near Apsley House in the Hyde Park Corner traffic island, making this a veritable Wellington neighborhood.  So I thought it was a little odd when, I was a little turned around after I came out of the Underground, I asked a few passersby where Apsley House was located.  "Come again?" and "What?" were the replies I received.  Even when I said, "Wellington's house" they didn't seem to know which way to direct me.   No matter -- it actually only took walking a few steps toward the giant Arch to find my way; but Aplsey House deserves to be better known, and I encourage visitors bound for London to find a place for it on their itineraries.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Wow, Hurricane Sandy.  Not much else to say.  But it is at least partially responsible for the time that has gone by between my last post and this one.  Rather than focus on what happened, I far prefer to focus on what is happening, and I admit I also prefer to continue thinking and writing about London!  So continuing on, I have a few more posts on London, and then I'll move on to the enormous list I have on other subjects.

Here are some great shops I spent time in in London that I really recommend:

*Labour and Wait [85 Redchurch Street, E2 / www.labourandwait.co.uk] is a small shop a short jog from Brick Lane and it waves the British flag for great and well-made hardware and home items as well as clothing.  Everything here is functional and useful but also very attractive, and everything but perhaps two or three items is made in Britain.  Good for gifts, for yourself and others.

*L'Artisan du Chocolat [89 Lower Sloane Street, SW1 / www.artisanduchocolat.com] also waves a British flag, for British chocolate!  Chef Gordon Ramsay has described L'Artisan as "the Bentley of chocolate," and I can confirm that the No. 1 Salted Caramels -- a dark chocolate shell coated in cocoa powder with a liquid filling of salt and caramel -- is one of the ten best culinary items I've ever put in my mouth.  You can buy these in a small container for 13 pounds 50, and in larger sizes: 48 pieces for 25 pounds and 108 pieces for 55 pounds.  Plus there is a liquid salted caramel sauce for 7 pounds 99.  I'm certain the other chocolates are delicious, but I didn't get past the caramels.

*Rococo Chocolates [5 Motcomb Street, / www.rococochocolates.com] is a lovely shop in Chelsea co-founded by Chantal Cody, who I first read about in Mort Rosenblum's fascinating book Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light (North Point Press, 2004).  "Once bitten, truly smitten" is the store's slogan, and it's accurate!  Cody is the author of her own book, Real Chocolate (Rizzoli, 2003), which I also enjoyed, and she started the Campaign for Real Chocolate.  There's a selection of bar chocolates that feature appealing flavors and pretty paper wrappers (I particularly liked the cardamom organic dark chocolate artisan bar) and there are lots of boxed assortments, like the Union Jack and signature Rococo below:

Rococo was honored with the Chocolatier of the Year 2011 award.  The shop also has a little cafe in the back -- good to know about if you need to take a break in the neighborhood.  It's hard to leave here empty-handed.  

*A. Gold [42 Brushfield Street, E1 / www.agold.co.uk] is a charming shop that specializes in British culinary and grocery items.  The owners are Safia and Ian Thomas, but the shop's name comes from its original owner, Amelia Gold, a Hungarian Jewish hatmaker.  You can also get a good cup of coffee here -- no foam! -- and it's great fun to walk around slowly and see some English specialties you may have thought no longer existed.

*Topshop [flagship address at 214 Oxford Street in the West End / www.topshop.com] and Jack Wills [72 Kings Road, SW3 / www.jackwills.com]  I have to mention because my 14-year-old daughter loved these British clothing stores, and if you are visiting London with teenaged girls they might like them, too.  Topshop is much more of a sensory-overload experience, but there is an EAT cafe downstairs so companions who want to escape the frenzy can comfortably wait here.

*Lastly, a word about the Royal Warrant: a number of retailers in England who are official Royal Warrant holders, and you'll know when you pass such a shop because you'll see the royal seals displayed in windows or on storefronts.  In order to be nominated for the honor (by members of the royal family), the supplier must have served the royal family for five consecutive years.  According to Eugenia Bell in her wonderful book The Traditional Shops and Restaurants of London (mentioned in a previous post), the first known example of a royal warrant was in 1155, when Henry II gave the Weavers Company a Royal Charter to provide cloth to the royal household.  Bell notes that it isn't just shops that are warranted: "along with the outfitters, gunmakers, and supermarkets preferred by the royal family, there are suppliers of everything from parasols to Christmas crackers."  Once a supplier has been nominated, the Warrant is signed and approved by the Lord Chamberlain, secretary of the royal household in an act of "loyalty for loyalty."

Apparently Queen Victoria handed out more than 2,000 Warrants in her sixty-four-year reign, and of these many still retain the honor, including Fortnum & Mason and R. Twining.      

Thursday, October 18, 2012

London Bookstores

I was stopped on 5th Avenue the other day by a woman who asked me if I was from London -- she saw I was carrying my cotton canvas tote bag from Daunt Books.  I explained that I'd recently visited London, and she said she'd been living there -- "around the corner from Daunt Books, one of the best bookstores in the world" -- for three years and was now back in New York and was feeling homesick.  I completely understood how she felt, not only because I have London very much in mind these days but also because Daunt really is one of the greatest bookstores I've ever been to.

I'm referring to the store's Marylebone High Street location, at numbers 83 and 84 near the Baker Street Tube stop (there are three other outposts in the city).  [And by the way, Marylebone is one of those English words that trips people up. I once worked with a British fellow from London who told me it was pronounced MAHR-luh-bone but I have also heard it pronounced MAHR-luh-bun.]  Anyway, Daunt is a dream of a bookstore, with a beautiful room in the back of the street level floor that's lit by a skylight and is devoted to travel books!  It's a kind of heaven, and the books are arranged in my favorite way, which is that all of the books about each country -- fiction, cookbooks, biographies, travel guides, maps, memoirs, etc. -- are all found together.  There is an entire section devoted to Corsica!  (If you don't know this yet, Corsica is one of my most favorite places on the planet -- see an article I wrote for the travel section of The New York Times, 'Along the Road of the Artisans,' 17 October, 2004.)

I bought some books published by British imprints, as well as a copy of Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, originally published in 1935 and now brought back into print by the publishing arm of Daunt. It was hard to leave this store, but it was also great to visit Heywood Hill [10 Curzon Street, Mayfair], a 75+ year old bookstore that deals in both new and old books.  I bought a copy of The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill, 1952-73.  When Heywood Hill left to serve in the British Army in 1943, he turned over the running of the store to Mitford.  She actually owned a share in the store, and later she famously wrote to Hill, "doing business with friends is impossible...do let's have a divorce."  There is one of those standard blue, commemorative plaques outside the store, indicating that Nancy Mitford worked there from 1942-1945, as well as one of the Royal Warrant plaques (more details about this later).   I also loved going to Stanfords [12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden], one of the world's greatest travel bookstores.  It's been here since 1901, and reportedly has the world's largest inventory of travel books under one roof.

This time, I didn't get back to one of my other favorite London bookstores, Books for Cooks [4  Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill; the only reason I didn't go is because I was actually trying to avoid the annual Notting Hill Caribbean Carnival].  I also really wanted to go to Foyles [113-119 Charing Cross Road, Soho; did you know that the name of the great British series, 'Foyle's War,' was inspired by this bookstore, which won the UK Bookseller of the Year award in 2010?] and John Sandoe Books [10 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea], and Primrose Hill Books [134 Regent's Park Road]...but I simply couldn't fit them all in.  And I nearly lost my  mind when I discovered the London Bookshop Map: so many bookstores, so little time!

If it seems like I spent all my time in bookstores, I really didn't (though I wouldn't have minded!).  More unique London retail stores up next.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Ceremony of the Keys, London

Most memorable highlight of my London trip:

*The Ceremony of the Keys, Tower of London.  This is known as the oldest, longest-running ceremony in the world, and it is positively fabulous.  Since 1280, every single night without fail -- even during the Plague, the Fire, and the Blitz -- a man known as the Gentleman Porter (or Chief Yeoman Warder) walks down the cobbled lane between the inner and outer walls of the Tower of London carrying a lit, brass lantern at precisely 9:53 p.m. (the only time he was a little late was when on 29 December, 1940, when a bomb fell so close that the Tower warders fell off their feet, and they wrote a letter of apology to the King for lighting the lamp three minutes late; the King replied that he understood).

When the Gentleman Porter reaches a certain spot down the lane, a sentry calls out, "Halt! Who comes there?"  And the Porter replies, "The keys!"  "Whose keys?" asks the sentry.  And the Porter says, "Queen Elizabeth's keys." And I won't spoil the rest of the ceremony but will only say that it is dark, a little spooky, dramatic, a little corny, and thrilling all at the same time and you positively have to attend it.

The tickets (shown above) are free but you must reserve in advance, at least several months ahead if you're visiting in the summer months (I wrote in February for tickets in August):  see details at Historic Royal Palaces.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

London Walks

In another forgetful moment I neglected to mention in my last post that I really enjoyed eating at Jamie's Italian in Covent Garden [11 Upper St. Martin's Lane, WC].  I am a big fan of Jamie's Italy cookbook, and this restaurant was big fun and lively, and I could have eaten bowls and bowls of the parmesan-rosemary crisps.


Without doubt, the first thing you have to do when you know you're going to London is check out London Walks, the original (from the 1960s) London walking tour company.  As  you'll discover when you take a look at the website, London Walks is "in a class by itself" and is "the premier walking tour company in the entire world."  If I'd had my way, I would have gone on a London Walks tour every day; but as it was, I had to also satisfy the London desires of my husband and daughter, so I had to settle for just one: 'Old Westminster, 1,000 Years of History.'  "Miss it and you've missed London" is how this tour is described, and I would quite agree.  The guide was superb, and one of my favorite parts of it was when we saw two original signs for bomb shelter locations, painted on the side of buildings throughout the city during World War II (pictured above).

It is, of course, the guides that make London Walks.  They are all ridiculously qualified, interesting, and enthusiastic.  And they've won mountains of awards, including an MBE by Her Majesty for services to the tourism industry and a coveted Guide of the Year honor.  Two actor-guides have performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the BBC, and the National Theater.  And one was on a list of fifteen of 'The World's Greatest Guides' list in Travel + Leisure.  She was the only one of the fifteen who was from England. 

There are lots of themed walks from which to choose, and really, the hardest thing is to make a decision -- just a few others are 'The Secrets of Westminster Abbey,' 'Westminster at War,' 'Hidden London,' 'The Queen's Jubliee Walk,' 'Jack the Ripper Haunts,' 'The Beatles In My Life Walk,' ' Ghosts, Gaslight and Guinness,' and the list goes on, with truly something for everyone.  All the tours are a very reasonable 9 pounds per person (7 for seniors and students), they take about two hours, and the starting point is always near a Tube stop.  Also, you don't need to reserve in advance, and of course if you are part of a group you can arrange for a private tour.  And, there are London Walks tours to Oxford and the Costwolds, Stonehenge, Bath, and beyond.   

You may remember that I recommended the London Walks book a few posts back -- it's also excellent, and is almost as good as going on an actual walk (by the way, one of the best things about the book is that David Tucker and the guides who wrote it recommend specific places in London to read each chapter -- brilliant!).  What really grabbed me when I read the book was in Tucker's Introduction -- he wrote that one night he was watching a lamplighter (London actually still has some lamplighters) and he wondered how many other people even knew there were still lamplighters around, and he also wondered how many other facts about London people didn't know and how great it would be if they did.  He writes, "London Walks guides are, after a fashion, latter-day gas-lamp lighters. Picture it: the lamplighter's figure moving along a London street in the gloaming and one by one the street lamps coming out like stars. And you think there's no romance in London? So that's what we do - light things up for people. Both out on the streets of London when we're guiding, and here, in these pages."  And this beautiful image below is now on the London Walks website (I don't know the title of the work or who the artist is, so I apologize for not giving credit where credit is due but I'm going to try and investigate and report back) and when I saw it it rather warmed my heart.  I think it perfectly encapsulates the inspiration behind this wonderful and worthwhile company.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Oops!  I completely forgot to include two books in my last post, and they are in two series that I consider indispensable: City Secrets: London and Alastair Sawday's Go Slow: England & Wales.  Do not for a second consider going to England without these!


I thought the most noticeable difference in London in the intervening years since I'd last been there was the quality of the food.  Not only is there simply more diversity, but the overall quality of everything is just a cut above what it once was.  On my last visit I ate (very good) Indian food almost exclusively, but this time I enjoyed a much wider array of choices.  Some standouts:

28 - 50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen  [140 Fetter Lane, EC4 and 15-17 Marylebone Lane, W1].  There are supposed to be symbols for degrees after the 28 and the 50 -- sorry, I haven't figured out how to do these yet -- and they refer to the latitudes between which most of the world's wine grapes are grown.  The name alone hooked me, and even if there wasn't much thought given to the food I'd probably still be a fan.  But as it happens the food -- which is in the French bistro style -- is equally as delicious as the wines on offer, and my meal here was terrific and memorable -- and so were those of my husband, daughter, and friends.  The team behind this venture is Xavier Rousset and Agnar Sverrisson, who met while working under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons (and who also own Texture at 34 Portman Street, W1,  which earned a Michelin-starred accolade in 2010.)  The chef is Paul Walsh, who worked at Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, and the manager is Ed Newman, who first met Rousset in 2001 when they worked at the Hotel du Vin.  The 28-50 team "only serve wines we like, that are interesting, drinking well and offer good value" and there are 15 reds and 15 whites offered by the glass, carafe, and bottle.  These change frequently, plus there is a 'collector list' of fine wines from friends who are private collectors -- some of these are rarely seen in restaurants.  

EAT: The Real Food Company chain [100+ locations, seemingly everywhere].  This casual, simple chain wouldn't even be a blip on my radar if we had a North American chain that was as good.  But we don't (though I can't even fathom why) so it stands out.  An EAT outlet is great if you want a quick but good light meal, hot or cold, and moderately priced. The company was founded in 1996 with the aim of offering the best food, soup, and coffee in London at good prices.  I think it's a hit, and EAT was awarded the 2012 honor of 'Best Coffee/Sandwich Shop.'  There is always a good selection of soups and sandwiches as well as drinks, salads, breakfast, and savory pies.

Bibendum Oyster Bar [Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, SW3].  Michelin House was originally built in 1909 and was the showroom for Michelin's offices in London.  The building itself is "worth a detour" and the colorful tiled exterior is a mix of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.  I didn't eat at the Bibendum restaurant but I did enjoy drinks and nibbles in the Oyster Bar, which shares space with a pretty flower stall and is a lovely place to sit down and take a break if you're in the vicinity of Kings Road.  Also, in this same building is the Conran store, which is always fun to explore.  

The Tate Modern restaurant [top floor of the museum, Bankside London, SE1].  The views all around are really the thing here, but the food's quite good and the space is large so there are lots of seats.  There is also a cafe and a bar area, which you walk by to reach the restaurant space, so if you're just in the mood for a sandwich, a beer, or cake and coffee, this might be a better choice -- there's a long counter along huge windows so you still have the views.

-- OK, I now realize I've been working on this post for several days, and as I have a few more to write about London, I've got to wrap this up!  (or it will continue on for days...) So, ever-so-briefly, here are other great places:

St. John Bread and Wine [94-96 Commercial Street]
Beigel Bake [159 Brick Lane, E1] (no web site)
PJ's Bar & Grill [52 Fulham Road]
Golden Hind for fish and chips [73 Marylebone Lane, 2PN] (no web site, but note that lunch is served from noon to 3:00; the staff doesn't start serving again until 6:00 p.m.) 

...and a few places I didn't get to but would very much like to are Bocca di Lupo [12 Archer Street, W1]; Dean Street Townhouse Dining Room [69-71 Dean Street, W1]; St. Pancras Grand restaurant and oyster and champagne bar [Upper Concourse, St. Pancras International Hotel, Euston Road, NW1];and Zafferano [15 Lowndes Street, SW1], Giorgio Locatellli's place in Knightsbridge (I am a big fan of Locatelli's Made in Sicily book (Fourth Estate, 2011) so this is tops on my list for next time). 


Thursday, September 20, 2012

London Resources

I am often asked to share the resources I use to plan trips, so when a friend recently asked me what I perused for London, I thought I would also share the list here, especially since I want to enthuse about  a terrific series of fold-out map/guides I discovered a few months ago from Herb Lester Associates in the UK:

 In addition to these two pictured just above, there are maps on Writing London, An Uncle's Guide to London, Clandestine London, London; You Are Here, and others on New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Glasgow.  Each is reasonably priced (4 pounds) and each is filled with a number of less obvious things to see and do.  I now have almost all of these and I love them and I think you will, too.

In a similar vein, Indagare has recently introduced its own Mapped Out series -- the editions on London and Paris are for families while Rome, Venice, and Vienna, are just for adults.  These are all in keeping with the high standards members and fans of Indagare have come to expect, and they combine some of the obvious sites with distinctive, lesser-known suggestions.  You can purchase the whole series for $55 or each is available individually for $12.95.   

Moving along,I should mention that for this particular trip, I only consulted one traditional guidebook (Fodor's London) as I've been to London twice before and I didn't feel I was in great need of that kind of a resource; rather, I wanted more specific, focused books, like these:
Both of these are, to my mind, 100% indispensable.  London A to Z (remember, the z is pronounced 'zed') is somewhat the equivalent of the Plan de Paris (if you're unfamiliar with le Plan, read 'According to Plan: Maps of Paris' by Catharine Reynolds in my Paris book, in which she states that "In Paris, map toting is no newcomer's proclamation of ignorance.  The most knowledgeable taxi drivers cannot know each of the city's 6,417 streets offhand; instead they pack copies of Paris par Arrondissement in their glove compartments.")

This is the book that's a compilation of walks offered by the excellent urban walking tour company (the world's oldest), London Walks.  More about the book and the company to follow in an upcoming post!

  Different from London Stories, this National Geographic Traveler guide of walks was also quite helpful and good. 

The Traditional Shops and Restaurants of London is an interesting and wonderful little guide that steered me to some shops and places to eat I would otherwise have missed.  Author Eugenia Bell also revealed lots of new details about places I already knew about.  Really wonderful.  

Again, as with the Traditional Shops and Restaurants book above, I learned about a ton of great places to eat and shop as well as places to stay.  This is really packed with suggestions, not only by author Saska Graville but by a handful of notable Londoners.

 The Luxe guides have attitude, and you have to sign on to this attitude in order to get the most out of these fold-out, pocket-sized, light-as-a-feather guides.  The tone is not only opinionated but witty and occasionally brutal (and sometimes annoying, like when TTFN stands for 'Ta-ta for Now').  But the retail suggestions and places to eat and drink are spot-on, the itineraries provide structure and are worthwhile, and the short-listed art and cultural recommendations are valid.  Full Stop.

The Louis Vuitton European Cities boxed set of books, published annually every Fall, routinely includes London in its assortment, and the 2012 edition was, as always, enlightening, succinct, and wonderful.  I'm not including an image here, sorry, because those I found featured the entire boxed set and not one of the individual book I used.  But I have found this set to be invaluable year after year.  The individual volumes are not sold separately, however -- you have to buy the whole set -- and there seems to be a rather small-ish print run so if you're interested in buying one you have to act quickly. 
 Both of these eating guides are terrific!  The Time Out guide is hugely helpful when you need to search for places by neighborhood.

And for my companion reading, I really enjoyed -- and highly recommend -- the following:

...and this is a typical type of research list for me, no matter where I'm going.  If you've read my books you know that I am a huge proponent of James Pope-Hennessy's book Aspects of Provence, in which he writes, "if one is to get best value out of places visited, some skeletal knowledge of their history if necessary...Sight-seeing is by no means the only object of a journey, but it is as unintelligent as it is lazy not to equip ourselves to understand the sights we see."   More London (and Cotswolds) notes to follow!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Imperial War Museum, London

Copyright (c) Imperial War Museum, Catalog No. IWM PST 3108
The Cabinet Room, (c) Imperial War Museum, Photograph Reeve Photography, Cambridge, Limited

The 'Beauty Chorus' - Telephones in the Central Map Room, (c) Imperial War Museum, Photograph Reeve Photography, Cambridge, Limited 

I know I just enthused about Churchill in my last post, but I just can't help writing about him again, specifically about the Churchill Cabinet War Rooms in London.

I'd last visited the War Rooms about fifteen years ago, and it was the highlight of my London trip then and was so again this time.  Then there wasn't a Churchill Museum in the middle of the whole complex, but now there is, and what an excellent museum it is!

The War Rooms are one of five UK sites that make up the Imperial War Museums (the other four are the HMS Belfast, the IWM London, IWM Duxford, and IWM North in Manchester).   The Cabinet Rooms were a group of underground offices in Whitehall that were the nerve center of Britain's war effort.  Two of the images above -- which I scanned from postcards I bought in the museum shop -- are from the Central Map Room and the Cabinet Room (these are my favorite rooms).  The rooms in the wartime bunker were fully operational on 27 August, 1939, one week before Britain declared war on Germany.  The Cabinet met here 115 times, most often during the Blitz, and the rooms were in use 24 hours a day until 16 August, 1945, when the lights were turned out in the Map Room.  In 1984, the Rooms were opened to the public, and in 2005 the interactive Churchill Museum was opened.

The Humble Pie poster above (which I also scanned from a postcard) is one of a number produced by the British Ministry of Information at the beginning of the Second World War. Probably the most famous poster is the one featuring the phrase, 'Keep Calm and Carry On,' which is now seen everywhere.  I saw a ceramic mug in the Cotswolds with the phrase, 'Now Panic and Freak Out,' which I love and I stupidly didn't buy it (and now wish I had!).  

Lastly, I have just discovered that Gretchen Rubin, author of one of my most favorite books, The Happiness Project (HarperCollins,) also wrote a book entitled Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004).  I can't believe I didn't know about this until now, but I'm going to make up for it by reading it just as soon as I finish Spitalfields Life (more about this book and this London East End neighborhood in an upcoming post).  To quote from the publisher's description of the book, Rubin analyzes contrasting views of Churchill: "he was an alcoholic, he was not; he was an anachronism, he was a visionary; he was a racist; he was a humanitarian; he was the most quotable man in the history of the English language, he was a bore."  I'm anxious to begin reading! 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Just back from a holiday in London and all my upcoming posts will be devoted to this great city (and the Cotswolds).  But first, before I went across the Pond, I caught the really excellent exhibit, 'Churchill: The Power of Words,' at the Morgan Library.  It's only on until the 23rd of September so if you live in the metropolitan New York area or you'll be visiting, try really hard to see it -- you won't regret it!

The exhibit highlights more than 50 years of Churchill's life (1874-1965) and features handwritten letters, speaking notes, personal and official correspondence, public statements, and recordings from some of his noteworthy speeches and broadcasts.  All of this material is from the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge and Chartwell, Churchill's home in Kent, and there have been rare opportunities to see these documents even in England. In a small, semi-enclosed room visitors can also sit down and watch black-and-white broadcasts Churchill made to members of Parliament as well as to British and American audiences.  A highlight for me is the framed award for Churchill's Honorary Citizenship of the United States.  As stated in The Morgan's calendar of events, "Sir Winston Churchill's impact upon the twentieth century is difficult to overestimate."  Writer Edward Rothstein reviewed the exhibition for The New York Times (8 June, 2012) and noted that the show demonstrates why attempts to displace Churchill from a central position in recent history are misguided.  "Flaws and failings are plentiful in individual lives, as in cultures and civilizations, but there are more important things deserving recognition: traditions that run deep and wide, that justly inspire advocacy and allegiance and that might even lead, as Churchill promises, to "broad, sunlit uplands."  It's a truly moving show.

The Morgan Library and the Churchill Archives Centre have also created a terrific website, DiscoverChurchill.org.  Though it's meant to be aimed at a younger audience and educators, the site is packed with facts, quotes, and links all presented in a lively format that will be of interest to those who are already Churchill fans and those who aren't yet.  There are great recommendations for 'Things to Do, See, and Read'; 'Places to Visit'; and 'What Else?'  It was from these that I learned about the The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States, based in New York, that I intend to learn more about.  

A unique book I discovered in the bookstore is Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill by Barry Singer, foreword by Michael Korda (Abrams).  One of the first facts I learned when I read this book's Introduction is that Singer is the proprietor of a bookstore called Chartwell Booksellers, also in New York (so now I have two New York City organizations to investigate!).  This is not at all like any other book about Churchill that's ever been published.  It is, in Singer's words, a portrait that's "both more infinite and more intimate than the standard view of Churchill.  It reveals a man who nurtured himself by partaking in a sparkling, continuous toast to all that life had to offer."

Both the exhibit and the book are hugely worthwhile.  


Thursday, August 23, 2012

At Home in Italy

The days at the end of August are among my most favorite of the calendar year as they are typically very warm (but not oppressively hot) with clear, blue skies, cool temperatures at night, and hints of the fall months to follow.  There is still plenty of summer left -- the first day of Autumn isn't until the 22nd of September -- and when I saw the cover of this book, At Home in Italy: Under the Summer Sun, I knew I had to get it!  It's just incredibly appealing, and reminds me that I want to make the most of my outdoor patio over the next month, including hosting a Rosh Hashanah dinner (if the weather holds). 

The book's cover photo was taken in an orange garden at Il Castelluccio, a baroque palace in a hamlet of the same name near Syracuse, Sicily.  In truth, the title of the book is somewhat misleading as there are far more photographs of interiors than outdoor living images.  But if you, like me, are crazy for this type of book, this detail is minor indeed, and you will love being inspired by these 21 Italian locales.

In her Introduction, Nicoletta del Buono (editior of Architectural Digest Italia), informs us of a book entitled Journey Through Italy that was written by writer and journalist Guido Piovene in 1957.  This work "documented the dawn of the economic miracle in post-war Italy," and it was so highly regarded that it was included in the reading requirements of secondary schools.  Del Buono says At Home in Italy is an attempt to resurrect the spirit of Piovene's book, though obviously with a different emphasis.  The gorgeous photos by Massimi Listri lead us "behind the scenes, inside people's homes, into places that reflect who they really are, and what they want out of life...these images speak volumes about Italy and its people."

Enjoy these end-of summer days with this book in your lap, preferably al fresco

At Home In Italy: Under the Summer Sun
Massimo Listri, text by Nicoletta del Buono
The Vendome Press, 2012

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bon Appetit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child & Out of the Kitchen: Adventures of a Good Writer

I admit I'm following the crowd of bloggers and other writers today by acknowledging the would-be-100th birthday of Julia Child, but August 15th is also my sister's birthday, so I have an additional excuse to say bon anniversaire to Julia and Jen! 

If you haven't yet read Bon Appetit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz and Wade) I urge you to go out tout de suite and get a copy.  Schwartz and Wade may be a publishing imprint devoted to children but do not for one second think that this wonderful, whimsical, packed-with-facts book isn't for adults.  It is, as stated on the inside jacket, for "all ages," and I think it is nothing less than a work of art.  "The BOOK comes out!  The year is 1961," Hartland writes about the 734-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  "The writing is clear and precise, the design uncluttered and easy to read.  For the first time, cookbook illustrations are drawn from the cook's viewpoint.  The recipes are foolproof.  They talk the beginning cook through classic French recipes, explaining every detail.  Reviewers and chefs -- and home cooks -- call it a MASTERPIECE."

Julia passed away in 2004 at the age of 91, and as Hartland reminds us at the close of her book, Julia "taught and inspired millions of people to cook."  Like those million others, I was hugely inspired by Julia, and my copy of MTAOFC is just as stained and worn as everybody else's copies.  But most inspiring to me are words from Julia's The Way to Cook (Knopf, 1992) so inspiring that I feature them on page 297 in my Paris book.  I won't type it in full here, but under the heading of "fear of food, indulgences, and small helpings" Julia wisely notes that "the pleasures of the table -- that lovely old-fashioned phrase -- depict food as an art form, as a delightful part of civilized life.  In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal." 

Also in my Paris book, on pages 524 - 535, I feature a chapter from a terrific book, Out of the Kitchen: Adventures of a Food Writer (John Daniel and Company, 2004) by Jeannette Ferrary.  The chapter appears in the 'Personalities' section of my book as it recounts the time Jeannette was helping Julia prep for a cooking demonstration and book signing at Macy's San Francisco in 1985 (that's Jeannette in the photo above).  Jeannette, by her own admission, claims she had no idea what she was doing, but if you read her warm and wonderful book, and I hope you will, you'll see that she knows plenty about cooking -- she is also coauthor, with Louise Fiszer, of six cookbooks, and author of M. F. K. Fisher and Me (Thomas Dunne, 1998), and she teaches food writing at Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley.  Ferrary has also been a columnist for The New York Times and a book and restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle (one book she reviewed is How Blue-Blooded Julia Child Became a Red-Blooded French Chef by Noel Riley Fitch).

I've not yet met Jeannette, but we've been corresponding by e-mail over the last few days, and today she is going to make a blueberry clafoutis from MTAOFC, and an article she wrote about Julia appears in the August/September issue of Gastronomica

In honor of the day, I'm heading out now to one of New York City's Greenmarkets -- which I know Julia would love -- to pick up provisions for dinner.
Cheers to Julia, Jeannette, and my dear sister, Jenniffer! (and yes, that's spelled with two ns and two fs)

Friday, August 10, 2012

It Happened in Florence by Nita Tucker

A few months ago I read It Happened in Florence by Nita Tucker (with Christa McDermott), which I believe was self-published in March 2012.  Readers of my Tuscany and Umbria book know that I love The Florentine, the biweekly, English language newspaper founded 7 years ago, so when I heard about this book -- written by the paper’s publisher -- I couldn't wait to read it. The Florentine can be found all around town and is targeted to the Florentine English-speaking community, both residents and visitors.  It is positively the most thorough resource for events and activities listings and I wish there were publications just like it -- with its great mix of articles covering hard news, culture, politics, business, travel, food, and sports -- in all of the destinations I write about in my Collected Traveler series.  Some of my most favorite regular features are "The Medici Archives," "Il Fatto Bello," and "Italian Voices."  Additionally, the paper prints two special issues (Florence for Students and Summer in Florence) that are indispensable and it has a book publishing arm with some great titles (my friend Robin brought me back a copy of Florence con Amore that I particularly like).

Anyway, Nita Tucker is one very fortunate woman: she was part of a team that established this great periodical; she was able to live in Florence for four years; she has an extraordinary husband and wonderful kids; and she is aware of, and never takes for granted, that she has an amazing life. I would love to meet her.  (Tucker is also the author of How Not to Stay Single, How Not to Screw it Up, How Not to Stay Single After 40, and Beyond Cinderella: The Modern Woman's Guide to Finding a Prince, none of which I've read but now I know that she's the perfect author for these kinds of books because she is filled with optimism and enthusiasm.)

When I started It Happened in Florence I was hooked by the second paragraph, which reads, "I live here! This is my life!" (and yes, the italics are hers.) I am admittedly drawn to this kind of enthusiasm. While I usually spend a lot of time sifting through "amateur" opinions from those that are more "seasoned," I'm really not very impressed by jaded points of view, and I like when people recognize they are experiencing something unique and special. If they didn't, there wouldn't be much point to traveling in the first place, and just because thousands of other people have been moved by Florence in the past doesn't mean that visiting the city can't be a life-changing experience for someone now. That said, however, I admit that there are a lot of italics in this book and they do become annoying; but Tucker's enthusiasm continues to win the day.
This is essenziale for anyone who will be staying in Florence or Tuscany for a length of time, but it's also useful and enlightening for anyone who wants an inside look into daily life in Florence (as well as for anyone contemplating starting a business in Florence). Especially helpful is the chapter 'Nita Tucker's Top Ten List of Things You Need to Know' ("that Italians assume you already do know, should know and are stupid for not knowing!") but there are other helpful phrases, cultural taboos, traditions,and etiquette tips that turn up in every chapter.

I enjoyed reading this book so much that I read another one she wrote, with Victoria Miachika, called Essential Florence: The Practical Guide for Living in Florence (also self-published, I believe, in 2010).   This book is more like a directory (chapter 11 is an "Essential White Pages") and is super essenziale for English-speaking foreigners spending lengths of time in the city.  However, I find it very useful for insight into cultural traditions Tucker didn't include in her other book.  Chapter 9, 'Embracing Cultural Differences,' is eye-opening reading for anyone who wants more than a superficial knowledge of Italians (and the 'Superstitious Survival' article by Roseanne Wells, reprinted from The Florentine -- one of several included in the book -- is fascinating).  I admit that a big smile crossed my face when I saw that the first edition of my Tuscany and Umbria book -- published in 2000 and entitled Central Italy: Tuscany & Umbria) was first on a list of 'Some Good Reads,' but I can't help making a correction to another recommended title: Made in Italy: A Shopper's Guide to the Best of Italian Traditions is not authored by Suzy Gershman (misspelled as Gersham) but is by Laura Morelli (and it's an excellent book, one that I also recommend often). 

Tucker no longer lives in Firenze -- I won't spoil the story here -- but she does return frequently, and she hasn't lost any of her passion for it: "Before I hit the pillow that first evening, I feel as if I've never left and it feels great. Still enthralled with Florence's beauty, my spirits soar at the sight of the Ponte Vecchio or at the vision of Il Duomo lit up at night."
  Visit Tucker's world at www.nitatucker.com

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Saudi Aramco World and The Raft of the Medusa

Are you familiar with Saudi Aramco World magazine? I wasn’t until I was working on my Istanbul book (and in fact there are several articles in my Istanbul book that originally appeared in Saudi Aramco World). The bi-monthly magazine is quite interesting, and well written, and was founded in 1949, when it was simply called Aramco World (since the July/August 2000 issue the magazine has taken the slightly longer title).

The Saudi Aramco oil company publishes the magazine to “increase cross-cultural understanding,” and its goal is “to broaden knowledge of the cultures, history and geography of the Arab and Muslim worlds and their connections with the West” (I’ve quoted directly from the website). A subscription is complimentary – see the details on the site – and I encourage you take a look (the articles can also be read on-line).  Also, don't miss the virtual walking tours of the Alhambra, Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on the site.

In the current issue, there are two terrific articles that I think you’ll enjoy as much as I do: ‘A Walk Through Historic Arab Paris’ by Nancy Beth Jackson and “The Point of the Arch” by Tom Verde, which traces the Gothic architectural feature of the pointed arch across five countries and as many centuries. It is positively fascinating, and Verde’s journey begins at the trail’s end, “in the city where Gothic architecture was born: Paris.”

Additionally, there is a sidebar in an article about Mauritania entitled 'The Wreck of the Medusa' that includes a little more information than I previously knew -- readers of my Paris book know that I devote pages 485 to 487 in the book to this monumental tragedy.  Romantic painter Theodore Gericault's canvas of the event, 'The Raft of the Medusa,' hangs in the Louvre and it's on my short list of the world's most impressive paintings.  Gericault's tombstone in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery also feaures a relief of the painting.   And as Albert Alhadeff notes in his excellent book The Raft of the Medusa: Gericault, Art, and Race (Prestel, 2002), French historian Jules Michelet "saw represented in the painting 'the shipwreck of France.'" 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mireille Guiliano

"Nothing but beauty and douceur" -- Mireille Guiliano, all photos taken by the author in and around her home, les Alpilles, Provence 
I have often said that one of the very best perks of compiling the books in my Collected Traveler series is that I sometimes am fortunate to meet some of the writers whose work I highlight. This is always an honor and a pleasure for me, and a few months ago I had to pinch myself when Mireille Guiliano invited me to lunch here in New York!  Mireille, of course, is the author of French Women Don't Get Fat,  French Women for All SeasonsWomen, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire and The French Women Don't Get Fat Cookbook (as well as former president and CEO of Veuve Clicquot champagne, a division of LVMH).  I invited her to share some of her Paris favorites for my book (these appear on page 195) as well as the Champagne region (pages 588-589). 

I've been a big fan of Guiliano's books, especially the earlier two, and I admit I gave myself a small pat on the back when I discovered that my eating habits almost mirrored those Guiliano endorses (though, okay, I should drink less wine, but I am very slow in coming around to that one!).  When her cookbook was published last year, it seemed like a logical next step, but I wasn't sure there would be many recipes I would find unique.  As it turns out, I was wrong -- there are some recipes that don't differ too much from those you'll find in other French or Mediterranean cookbooks, but there are plenty that are new, and Mireille shares still others from her family.  I extolled the virtues of The 'Magical Breakfast Cream' recipe to anyone who would listen, and it alone is a reason to peruse the book (the recipe doesn't sound very exciting, including as it does, flax, an ingredient I have long felt tasted like sawdust; but you'll have to believe me that it's a truly yummy yogurt concoction).  

What Mireille espouses is not rocket science, even though to some North Americans it might seem like it is; rather, it's really just common sense, paying attention to your eating habits and how much exercise you get, and remembering how important the phrase 'joie de vivre' (joy of living) is!  And I very much believe that much of her advice is also applicable to men.   

Mireille proposed we meet at a restaurant I'd walked by a few times but never tried, La Silhouette [362 West 53rd Street / (212) 581.2400 / http://www.la-silhouettenyc.com/], and our meal was really quite delicious.  We each had champagne, small poached eggs with asparagus, and a mixed seafood acqua pazza and everything was superb.  The service was also very warm and efficient.  La Silhouette is a bit deceiving -- when you walk into the entry, you can't quite tell that the space stretches all the way back, but when you walk through a somewhat narrow room you end up in a bright, airy, large room that's very pleasant.  I'm looking forward to returning. 

Early on at La Silhouette, Mireille mentioned she was leaving in a few weeks for her house in Provence -- the beautiful photos above were taken in and around her property.  I enviously sighed as Provence is one of my most favorite places on earth (my very first visit there as a student in 1979 remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life) and we spent most of our lunch talking about how much she loves this region.  She recently wrote me and said that a quote from Voltaire, that translates as "I've decided to be happy because it's good for one's health," has become her motto in Provence, where happiness comes naturally, perhaps because Provence is her little paradis terrestre (earthly paradise).

I thought other Francophiles would be as interested as me in learning about Mireille's Provence (as well as some general thoughts about her books and about life), so I've shared them below.  And don't miss Mireille's 'Table Hopping in Provence,' found under 'French Finds' on her French Women Don't Get Fat website:   
Q: Did you have a sense, when you wrote French Women Don’t Get Fat and then French Women for All Seasons, how successful the books would be here in the U.S. (and indeed the world)? Were you surprised at the books’ reception?

A: I knew they would have an interest and an impact but certainly not as huge and/or long-lasting…7 years later I still get lots of email daily from women who are discovering or rereading, and some of the readers' stories are amazing. So, it makes me feel good to be making a little difference in some people's lives. The book seems timeless, and the reception still amazes me. Daily mentions in the press is also telling, and the phrase "French women don't get fat" has become iconic, a point of reference.

Q: Did you and your husband consider buying a house in another region of France or did you have your hearts set on Provence?

A: We've been going to Provence since we got married and half of my family lives/lived there in Aix, Avignon, and Beaucaire/Tarascon. My husband Edward fell in love with it from the very first visit. To us it's the light, the sky, the history, the architecture, the climate, the vegetation, the smells, the cigales (cicadas), the views of les Alpilles [the area in the western edge of Provence between Avignon and Arles that’s named after a small mountain range], the food, the wines, the art, and much more. After Paris, it's the part of France that has the most culture and on top it has a quality of life one can't just get in a big city.

Q: Once you were looking for a house in Provence, did you have a particular area in mind, and did it take you a long time to find it?

A: Yes, very specific and only in the village where we stayed in every summer. We also wanted an old house, not too big, no need for tennis court, etc., and we found this 1780's bergerie (sheepfold), just perfect for us. It's a bit outside the village, isolated, but also close enough to walk there and we have a great view on the village and the Alpilles. Total silence (the greatest luxury in my book) rules most of the year except when farmers work in their olive groves. We are far from the main road so no car noise.

Q: Without revealing the exact area of Provence where you are right now, what are some of the things you’re looking forward to doing there this summer?

A: The beauty of Provence is that you can stay at the house, enjoy the lavender, the pool, the terrace, the view, do nothing… but you can also be very busy with what is around: Avignon, St Rémy de Provence, Arles, Les Baux but also lots of small villages, and in the summer an amazing choice of concerts with music festivals all over as well as les Chorégies d'Orange which always amazes our guests and is a unique experience [les Chorégies – the name is derived from the Greek “choreos” -- is the oldest festival in France and dates from 1860; the remaining 2012 summer schedule, which runs through 30 July, includes works by Rossini, Mozart and a Lyric Concert featuring Michel Plasson, Diana Damrau, and Béatrice Uria-Monzon]. We've been a few times but last year's ‘Rigoletto,’ with a first-rate Italian cast and the Paris orchestra, will forever stay with as one of the greatest musical evenings of our life. There are also plenty of lovely markets, restaurants, and artisans in Provence. The sky is the limit.

Q: You have a number of houseguests throughout the summer months. What are some typical meals you like to serve Chez Guiliano, and what cookbooks other than your own do you use?

A: I don't use cookbooks. I do simple meals because the ingredients are so great one does not need to do much. I have a wonderful cheese monger who makes fresh goat cheese and faisselle (sort-of a cottage cheese that’s made in both goat and cow varieties) and who delivers, which is a treat. A few farmers also bring me what they have so what I cook is a function of what I get. Tomatoes are probably what we eat the most often as there are so many types. We eat them plain, in salads, with ricotta on tartines (open-faced sandwiches), grilled and stuffed with meat. Meals are easy in the summer. I do a few batches of ratatouille every week (guests love it warm, cold, with fish or white meat or on top of pizza dough). We have a very good fisherman so I have fresh fish and once in a while lamb or bull on the grill. Desserts are fruit from cherries to strawberries to apricots to melons to figs…

Q: You’ve said in other interviews that you are very fond of champagne, but are there Provençal wines you drink that you recommend?

A: We rarely drink champagne though when I offer it nobody says no. There are lots of wonderful rosés and local white and red wines we love, from Château Romanin (our favorite) to Domaine Henri Milan and Mas de la Dame to wines from Draguignan [wine growing area in the neighboring département of Var] to Château La Verrerie and many others we buy when we tour with guests.

Q: What’s on your ‘To Read’ list this summer, and what are you reading right now?

A: With the iPad I reread Proust or the classics and contemporary French literature, but I also like books on art. I am currently reading a French translation of Dora Maar (the house Picasso "gave" her is in Ménerbes, a village in the Lubéron not far from us) and Prisonnière du Regard, written by Dujovne Ortiz. Friends bring me books (my favorite present) on Bonnard as a museum opened in Le Cannet near Cannes, and he is one of my favorite painters. And, of course, I always like to read about Matisse or Cézanne or Van Gogh. After seeing the exhibition on artist Gerhard Richter in Paris I am also reading about him.

Q: And what’s on your iPod or stereo that you’re particularly enjoying?

A: Some jazz, lots of Chopin, French songs by Brassens, Ferrat and Reggiani (sheer poetry). Right now, I am totally addicted to Musica Nuda. The singer, an Italian, Petra Magoni, has this amazing voice and sings not only in Italian but English and French…from Bach to the Beatles (she's a trained opera singer) and Ferruccio Spinetti is incredible at the bass. Amazing talent. We discovered them recently at a concert in Ravello.

Q: You have proven that one can adopt many French ways of living in the States. In New York, what are some of your tips for keeping France in your life, and what are some of your favorite purveyors for the kinds of items -- good quality produce, flowers, home décor finds, books, butchers, clothing, skin care, scent, etc. – that define your joie de vivre?

A: I have to admit I would have a hard time living here without the Union Square Greenmarket. I buy fruit, veggies, eggs, milk, butter, fish and the little meat we eat there. For books, I go to the various small independent bookstores in the Village but there is really nothing equivalent to what is available in Paris from the great Galignani on rue de Rivoli to Librairie des Femmes on rue Jacob or La Hune on place St.- Germain and many small ones (without going too much into stereotype, reading is on top of the list to many French much like music to Germans and painting to Italians). Clothing I rarely buy here. I am not much of a shopper and like about a dozen stores in the world where I go over and over as I visit and if/when I see a piece I like I get it if I feel, "hmm…I could wear this tonight."  Here not much really ever fits me well with my small French frame, and I've long been a fan of Italian and Japanese clothing because of the style, quality and no alteration ever. I don't really have a big wardrobe just a few nice mostly timeless pieces to go out and comfortable ones for home, cotton pants and a white or pastel shirt for the summer and black or navy leggings with light green or blue cashmere sweater in winter. C'est tout.

But of course she makes it seem so simple....!  When Mireille returns from Provence at the end of the summer she has a busy autumn ahead of her, one that includes more writing, so stay tuned.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Just back from a weekend in Lambertville, New Jersey!  You may have read my previous post  earlier this year about Frenchtown, New Jersey, which is very near Lambertville.  Though I've now been to Frenchtown half a dozen times I'd never been to Lambertville, and now I can report that it's as lovely and charming as people had told me.

According to the Lambertville Historical Society website, what is now the "city" (really, it's just a village) was originally purchased from the Delaware Indians as a portion of a 150,000 acre tract along the Delaware River north of Trenton.  The purchase price was about $2,800, and over the years the council of West Jersey subdivided and sold the land to farmers and developers.  The first resident of Lambertville was John Holcombe, who built the stone house on North Main Street that became known as Washington's Headquarters (one of many, obviously!).  In 1732, a fellow named Emanuel Coryell obtained a charter to operate a ferry crossing the Delaware River slightly south of the present Lambertville-New Hope (Pennsylvania) Bridge.  He also operated a tavern and an inn, and at the time these settlements (Lambertville and New Hope) were simply called Coryell's Ferry.  Lambertville was the mid-point on the two-day journey between New York and Philadelphia.    

Coryell's estate was divided among his four sons when he passed away and by the early 1800s the property had been subdivided.  In 1812, a wooden bridge was constructed across the Delaware River and Bridge Street was established.  In the same year, Captain John Lambert built a stone tavern and inn on Bridge Street, which today is Lambertville House, a very nice inn where I stayed this weekend.

In 1830, the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company began building and operating a canal to connect the Raritan and Delaware Rivers, and this 44-mile canal  follows the river to Trenton.  By 1849, Lambertville was incorporated and was home to 1,417 people.  Things rather boomed for a while, but the flood of 1903 -- which caused enormous damage and swept the covered bridge away (the iron one there now dates from 1904) -- began a spiral of unfortunate events (including the abandonment of the Delaware and Raritan Canal by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1937) and the town fell into decline.  Happily, Lambertville was "discovered" again in the 1970s and '80s, and a lot of beautiful buildings and the canal path have been restored, and lots of galleries, antique shops, and unique boutiques have opened up.

The Inn at Lambertville Station has an enviable position right on the canal (and also has several options for eating and drinking), but Lambertville House is less of a hustle-and-bustle kind of place, and each of the guest rooms is named after a local personality.  I stayed in the Edward Redfield (1869-1965) room on the 4th floor, and I didn't realize that Redfield was an American Impressionist painter and a member of the art colony in New Hope (in fact, as he was the first painter to move to the area he is considered to be a co-founder of the artist colony, with William Langson Lathrop).  Redfield studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and at the Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and today some of his work is in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Meeting the owners of the Lambertville retailers was a treat, and among those I particularly enjoyed were at June's Antiques (37 Coryell Street), Panoply Books (48 N. Union Street), the Antiques Center at The People's Store (28 N. Union Street), The Chocolate Box (really beautiful shop at 39 North Union, e-mail: info@chocolateboxusa.com) and the Tomasello Winery shop (1 North Union), where I tasted (and bought) a terrific, dry rose called Summer Solstice, absolutely perfect for the hot weather we've been having.

On Sunday, my husband and our traveling companions drove north, mostly following the river, to Frenchtown, where we (again) had a terrific lunch at the Lovin' Oven and enjoyed wandering (again) around Two Buttons, the fantastic Asian emporium owned by author Elizabeth Gilbert and her husband.  If you go, don't miss The Buddha Wall, a huge stone carving from Indonesia that depicts the Last Temptation of the Buddha (the Wall is at the edge of the Lovin' Oven's outdoor patio).
Lambertville House
A National Historic Inn
32 Bridge Street / (609) 397.0200 / http://www.lambertvillehouse.com/

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book jacket photo by Steven Rothfeld, http://www.stevenrothfeld.com/ / photo of Frances Mayes and two others, taken at Bramasole, by Peggy Harrison, http://www.peggyharrison.com/

"Food!  The obsesssion of every Tuscan."  -- Frances Mayes

My most recent interview with Frances Mayes ("Catching Up with Frances Mayes") appears in the current issue of Dream of Italy!  (If you are already a subscriber you've likely read it by now, and if you're not a subscriber, you should be!  Seriously, when you subscribe to DOI you become part of a passionate community of Italy enthusiasts, and in addition to the monthly newsletter you have access to the archive, receive some special discounts, etc., etc., plus Kathy maintains a blog which she updates daily.)  

Dream of Italy Founder, Editor, and Publisher, Kathy McCabe, still receives lots of queries about Frances from her readers, so the publication of a new book by Frances and her husband, Edward Mayes -- The Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Recipes From our Italian Kitchen (Clarkson Potter) -- seemed like an opportune moment for another interview (I interviewed Mayes in 2005 for Dream of Italy and I had the very great pleasure of meeting her at Bramasole when I was working on my Tuscany and Umbria book -- my interview with her appears on pages 160-169).   

Frances and Ed collected their favorite recipes for this book, and as Frances writes in the 'La Cucina' chapter, "If you came to visit me in Tuscany, we would cook the food described in this book."  What I didn't have space for in Dream of Italy is to mention some of the recipes I've had the chance to make over the last few months.  Here I can report to you that I had great success with the following:
*Chicken with Olives and Tomatoes (I didn't use the recipe for roasted tomato that appears on page 42, but rather I used one I'd cut out of some publication or another that simply calls for cherry tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary)
*Farro Salad (double delicious if you love farro as much as I do)
*Fiorella's Red Pepper Tart (though Fiorella apparently purchases ready-made piecrusts, I don't, ever, after buying one once and it was horrible -- perhaps in Italy there are good quality crusts available; so I made the pate brisee crust in the first edition of Martha Stewart's Pies and Tarts, which has long been my go-to, never-fail, recipe though probably more authentic would be a pasta frolla (recipe on page 192) minus the sugar)
*Onion Soup in the Arezzo Style (as the recipe states, you eat this with a fork -- it gets baked in the oven and still comes out a little bit soupy)    
*Pici with Fresh Fava Beans (A friend had given me some pici pasta, unique to Tuscany, that she'd bought at O & Co. and this recipe was calling as I love, love, love fava beans)
*Green Beans with Black Olives (the recipe also calls for orange peel, which my husband absolutely detests, so I used lemon instead)
*Ed's Crostini Neri (I've made a fair number of recipes for this classic Tuscan starter of chicken liver on toast but I'm making this one exclusively from now on)

In truth, a number of recipes in the book are quite similar to those in other Tuscan or Italian cookbooks, so home cooks should not expect to find 150 unique recipes; but many feature a unique twist on a well-known favorite, and still others are from local places in and around Cortona and elsewhere in Tuscany that Ed and Frances particularly like, as well as from places like The Catering Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, run by Franca Dotti who is originally from Milan. 

I have bookmarked lots more pages with recipes, and I'll make them over the next few months.  But for me, this book is more about inspiration: I love reading about the seasonal rhythm at Bramasole; about local traditions; and about all the friends Frances and Ed have made in and around Cortona, notably Sylvia Regi at the lovely and trendsetting Relais Il Falconiere (Sylvia is pictured in my book on page 499) and Ann Cornelisen, author of a treasured book, Torregreca: Life, Death, and Miracles in a Southern Italian Village, originally published in 1969 and reissued by Steerforth Italia in 1998; Frances loves it also as she wrote the Foreword to the Steerforth edition.  I also love looking at the photographs of the tables set alfreso, and as I note in my Dream of Italy piece, I love that the label for Bramasole's olive oil features a detail from 'The Birth of the Baptist' fresco in the Cappella Tornabuoni in Santa Maria Novella by Ghirlandaio. I'm sorry to say I haven't yet tried Bramasole oil, but I'm now hugely anticipating it.  The oil is only available by mail order -- essentially you become a member of the Bramasole convivium and commit to purchase the oil in advance of the harvest.  Ed and Frances only import the amount of oil that has been pre-purchased, and it's not available in retail stores (I suppose it might be at some point in the future, but not now).  For all the details about the oil and for ordering, browse http://www.thetuscansun.com/.  

Perhaps the best reason for reading and cooking from this book is expressed by Frances: "Most recipes are simple and the few that are not are fun.  This is real Tuscan food from a small hill town we have grown to love as home.  Because of our  many years here, we've had the great luck to learn about Tuscan food from the inside, not as visitors...what I hope becomes real for you is the astonishing range of Tuscan food, and the sense of joy that permeates the Tuscan kitchen."