Saturday, April 30, 2011

Villa Borghese

            The Borghese name is one that rings of papal legitimacy in Rome.  Centuries ago, this was the most powerful and wealthy family, obviously having great holdings of land and art.  In the 17th century, a villa was designed and built, purposefully to contain the family’s art collection and to entertain away from the Vatican.  It was a palazzina, then outside of Rome’s city limits, on a significant amount of land. 
            In 1902, the government purchased this estate and it now provides Rome’s answer to Central Park, with gravel paths, leading through treed and sculpture filled natural areas and the villa as a central feature.  The villa has just been given something like an 18-year restoration and it is in perfect form to host the bursting crowds who have to preorder tickets and queue for a one-hour time slot in the gallery.
Trained orange hedge
The tulips are spent, but the structure is in place.
            But once the hour is up, there are still gardens where you can take as much time as you wish.  They have formal structures, like trained and sculptural hedges, but are filled with common herbs (rosemary, salvia…) and loved flowers (irises, tulips, violas).  

Oranges and lemons in pots

Friday, April 29, 2011

From Meal One

            From the first bites we put in our mouths, we want to be open to altering our perceptions of "real Italian food".  I often get “heavied” out with Italian:  too much sauce, too hearty of pasta, too much cheese or cured meat.  I have to admit that I don’t cook that much classic (or is it just American)  Italian, because I just don’t usually have the appetite for it.  But when I’m actually in Italy, I don’t find the food like that.  Pizzas are cracker thin with a few shavings of parma ham, a pile of rocket, and a dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano.  I could eat a whole one myself, each day I’m here. 
Our first meal on this trip began at the trattoria Colline Emiliane, near Bernini Square.  This compact restaurant represents the regional cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, capital city-Bologna. The area has several culinary claims to fame, among them, Parmesan, balsamic vinegar, Bolognese sauce, and Parma ham. I can hardly imagine Italian food without all four of these staples.  

Being a rain showery, spring Friday, we began with a soup:  “dumplings stuffed with meat in broth” was all we knew.  When it arrived, we were a little surprised to see about 40 tortellini floating in beef broth.  That was a heartier dish than we had intended to start with, but scooping in, the tortellini were not heavy, cheesy lumps, but light little pillows that melted in your mouth leaving a lingering taste of mild beef broth scented with nutmeg.  We ate them all; it wasn’t a problem.  

Next, came the real pasta we had ordered, tagliatelli with ham and asparagus.  Again, it wasn’t thick ropes of noodles, but almost transparent strips that at moments made me think of eating Asian rice noodles.  

Dessert isn’t always my favorite part of the meal and I don’t often even have dessert, but their freshly made sweets were on display as you entered the restaurant and in fact, to order one, you had to get out of your chair and go point to the one you wanted.  You knew that when an item was all served up, that was it for that day.  I got the first serving of the pear tarte tatin with pine nuts and currants.   

This is a dessert I would like to add to my repertoire as a standby.  The almond crust was barely sweet and with the chunky bites of nuts and pears, you almost felt like you were eating a side dish and not a dessert.  The pears, however, were buttery and caramelly, making it a definite dessert.  It was such an elemental dish that I do believe I will be able to replicate it at home, layer by caramelized layer.


Returning to Rome

            Oftentimes, when you visit a new place, you know you can’t take it all in on that first visit and so you start to log things into your mind that you will pursue when you come back. Sometimes you do come back and sometimes you never do.  Isn’t Rome full of that kind of lore?  In fact, isn’t that the deal with tossing a coin into Trevi Fountain?  That you will be assured of one day returning to Rome? 
            We were here just about a year ago with our sons, Gabe and Anton.  We had them jump on an airplane as soon as they were finished with finals at their university so they arrived, tired from their quarter of school and jet lagged, but they were glad to be with us and to be in Rome.  Because it’s expensive to accommodate 4 adults in Rome for a week, we rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Trastevere.  It is a beautiful residential area with plenty of great, small restaurants and artisan shops.  There are many, many piazzas in Trastevere, one of which was right outside our ground floor apartment.  The apartment was a little small and a little damp, but we all wanted to make it work.  Our first night, jet-lagged and desperate for sleep, we settled into our tolerable beds and slept well for a couple of hours. At midnight on the dot, we were all four awakened by what sounded like 300 partygoers in our living room.  They were actually not in our living room, but outside in the piazza, but it didn’t make much difference.  They remained there, getting drunker and louder until 3:00 AM when they dribbled away and we were allowed to fall back asleep. 
            We woke up the next morning almost wondering if it had actually happened or if we had dreamed it.  The piazza was deserted and showed no signs of carousing, but our bleary eyes confirmed that it had been a reality. 
            This exact pattern continued every night we were there.  Finally, midweek, we took the train to Perugia, Umbria just to get a good night’s sleep.  When the boys left at the end of the week, they felt like they had been in some kind of sleep deprivation torture.  They had colds and were just as happy to be going back to college where they could get some rest.  It was a bad way to start with Rome. 
            When I told Anton, last weekend, that we were going to Rome and staying at a hotel, he laughed, “Last time, we saw all the sites and got no sleep.  This time, you can just sleep.”  I’m not planning to just sleep, but it is a nice option to not feel pressured to keep up the tourist pace.  I am certainly not opposed to spending more time at the Vatican or the Coliseum at some point, but I am looking forward to enjoying a smaller bit of Roman life this weekend.  Our hotel, in fact, is near Trevi Fountain and there are many historical sites within walking distance.  Rather than hopping in a taxi and going all over the city, I’m going to treat Rome like it is the village of Trevi.  I want to see all of the different churches, the hidden gardens, the neighborhood artisan shops, and as always, eat at the restaurants, within walking distance.  And if I’m really lucky, there will be a big Saturday or Sunday market set up where I can browse to my heart’s content.  

            I can see from our balcony that some guys are setting up sound equipment in the piazza below. It all looks peaceful by day, but what might we be in for tonight?

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Annual Artisan Fair

At long last, the Tunis artisan fair has arrived.  It seems, this year, like every time I complemented someone on a beautiful item in their home, they told me they got it at the artisan fair.  But this renowned market happens just once a year so you have to wait for it.  It is worth the wait, though.  Isles and isles and rooms of vendors, all with high quality artisan work:  metal, wood, ceramics, textiles, scents.  They even had really good snacks, like the Bedouin flat bread in the pictures, filled with a chili paste called harissa.  

On my plane ride home last weekend, I read a newspaper article about Ellen Barkin, New York’s famous actress and socialite.  The author of the article described her apartment as having Le Corbusier chairs with goat skin rugs scattered on the floor.  That was it.  I don’t have the Le Corbusier, but I knew the artisan fair was coming up this week and I thought I might find the rugs.  I did! 

  I also found some olive wood accessories, which I have been waiting to purchase until this fair rolled around.

I came home with a big basket full of luxury.  

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Beans and Squid

We set out on a mission this morning to try and replicate the cannellini beans and squid dish we loved so much in Spain.  First stop was La Goulette fish market to buy squid.  They came partially cleaned and eviscerated, but we had to pull up a video on the internet to learn how to finish them off.  I think the fish sellers leave the ink sac in the squid for the women who want it for pasta. 
More than one site recommended marinating the squid in milk to soften it.  All I can think of is lactic acid in milk that could work on the fibers of the squid.  The advice was to marinate it for 24 hours, but we had about 6 hours so we tried it.  We left it in big chunks and tentacles, covered it with milk, stirred in a couple of cloves of sliced garlic, salt, and pepper, and put it in the refrigerator.

Here is a recipe from Epicurious that I thought would be a nice preparation for the beans.  They needed some flavor of their own and the garlic, sage, and sea salt created a great background.

Cannellini Beans with Garlic and Sage
Bon Appétit  | October 2009
by Lori de Mori

Yield: Makes about 6 cups
If you're making the beans to use for the soup or the sausages, be sure to save the cooking liquid.

  • 1 pound dried cannellini (white kidney beans)
  • 8 cups room-temperature water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large head of garlic, unpeeled, top 1/2 inch cut off to expose cloves
  • 1 large fresh sage sprig
  • 1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (for drizzling)

Place beans in large bowl. Cover with cold water (at least 6 cups) and let soak overnight.
Drain beans. Place in heavy large pot. Add 8 cups room-temperature water, 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, sage, and black peppercorns. Bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Mix in 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Continue to simmer until beans are tender, adding more water if needed to keep beans covered, about 30 minutes longer. Cool beans in liquid 1 hour.
Using slotted spoon, transfer beans to serving bowl, reserving bean cooking liquid, if desired, but discarding garlic, sage, and peppercorns. Season beans to taste with pepper and more coarse salt. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve.
We rinsed the squid, patted it dry and scored the big pieces to keep them from
curling on the grill.   

            The leeks are wrapped in strips of Iberico ham.  Tres cher.  

            This is the shiniest our new paella/grill pan will ever be.

The dish was so good, not exactly like the one we had, but it had the same convincing characteristics.  Allan said it was better than anything we had had in Spain, but we have short memories.  The squid was fork tender.  I can’t wait to try a 24-hour marinade.

While we ate, and the grill was hot, we tossed some peppers into the salty, hammy oil.  We can eat them throughout the week in scrambled eggs and polenta.

I Am a Magazine Gal

            I am adapting to the writing style of blogging.  Since starting my blog, I have studied it as a writing genre.  I like some of it, but I find a lot of it falls short as completed pieces of writing.  Not that mine always is either.  Obviously, the problem isn’t actually the writing of the bloggers, it is that I have the incorrect expectation.  I am a student of the magazine.  In my adult life, magazines have had a profoundly formative affect on my life and lifestyle.  I should have some type of degree or at least a certificate of participation from a publishing company so systematic and thorough has been my study. 
            I am at Charles de Gaulle airport on my way home to Tunis and I saw a woman just flipping through a magazine, hardly taking time to even register a photo and certainly not reading any text.  I was a little shocked; I truly couldn’t imagine doing such a thing.  I READ magazines.  I read them cover-to-cover, including the advertisements, which feed into the concept of the publication.  I read them and then I save them and I have renovated and decorated many homes and designed carpets and furniture from the pages I have dog-eared along the way.  When I am moved by the photos or descriptions of a room or even a recipe, I want to make my life not just look, but feel the same way.  I don’t want to only make the recipe; I want to make it in a kitchen that has a similar feel to the one in the photo shoot, so I work to transform my living space similarly. 
When three of my dearest magazines went out of publication last year:  Gourmet, Metropolitan Home, and Western Interiors, it really did leave a hole in my life.  Just months later, I moved to Tunis where I can’t buy English literature and don’t have a means of importing foreign goods so I have really weaned myself from my small addiction to print stimuli.  I am doing more visual exploration, from my own perspective, with my camera and attempting to write about the small ideas I am moved by.  I am also reading magazine websites, but they aren’t the same.  I can get an “idea” from a website, but I can’t get the mood. 
When you make a big move, like from Nepal to Tunisia, you go through all of your belongings and make excruciating decisions about what is important enough to you to pay to ship to your new home and what you can be finished with and leave behind.  I went through my entire magazine collection, every page of every magazine, about 15 years worth.  I didn’t take this decision frivolously.    I could remember exactly where I had been living, and how old I was, and how old my children were when I had first studied the various spreads of rooms or pieces of furniture that I tried to imitate or incorporate in our home.  I have Martha Stewart’s inaugural edition and the final copies of both Gourmet and Metropolitan Home.  I decided I couldn’t be without this collection because I continue to need those references and so they came with me and I am glad to have them. 
            The editors of my favorite magazines have become like older sisters or aunts to me: Ruth Reichl, Donna Warner, and I would be dishonest if I didn’t give tons of credit to Martha Stewart.  I have evolved my own life beyond Martha, but she introduced me to a new world. As these editors focused on a theme for the monthly publication, they also integrated personal stories and anecdotes so I learned content from the magazine and gained insights into their lives, simultaneously. 
                 I know that this is the model I am following with my blog.  I am actually writing a five paragraph Editor’s Page with each entry and I like changing the title photo as if creating a fresh magazine cover.  I am aware that I am doing this, but for now, I like it; it feels good and familiar to me and maybe I’ve always wanted to give it a try.  Eventually, I might become an actual blogger, but for now, I am Editor in Chief. 
            I’ve got a couple of hours till my flight and the bookstore had a treasured American publication and so for awhile, nothing else exists.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Day of Design

            I don’t have any business trying to photograph the great architectural sites of Barcelona.  I don’t have any cool lenses.  At one point, I was completely lense shamed into just putting my camera away, choosing instead to save memories in my heart, but then I got into Sagrada Familia and I wanted to at least take I was here pictures.  Graciously, Gaudi just shows up so well in pictures that some of them came through in the end.  We knew we had really big Gaudi stops to make still.  These are his most famous: La Sagrada Familia and La Padrera.  It was a little hard to face the crowds and the lines, but in the end, we didn’t regret one minute of the time we spent in line and we felt like we had plenty of space and time inside the buildings to soak them in.  They are spectacular and where with other architecture, you feel like you are inside the architect's work, in these buildings, you feel like you are inside of Antoni Gaudi’s mind they are so original and well… genius.  

La Sagrada Familia
            You see this massive cathedral from all over the city and you think it is going to look like some other Gothic cathedral you have been to.  Then you walk in and it looks like a concept from the 1960s, with angular, clean lines, lots of natural light, and abstract decorative applications.  I never could grasp where Gaudi used repetition.  Every surface seemed to be unique and yet they made a harmonious whole.  

La Pedrera
            This was the last residential project Gaudi worked on before dedicating the rest of his life to La Sagrada Familia.  There are things about it that I struggle with.  It looks Flintstonish to me sometimes with the curvaceous stone exterior and the nonangular window and door frames.  But again, the space inside has such a feeling of calm.  The sculpture garden on the rooftop is fantastic in the definition of being from one’s imagination.  Who thought this was OK to do in 1910?  It is completely out of time, but these sculptures against the Mediterranean sky are ethereal.  They remind me both of the monolithic moai of Easter Island and of the wind-made sandstone sculptures at the national parks in Utah.  

            And then I just happened upon Vincon, a shop I had read about, but hadn’t planned to completely seek out.  It is one of those really cool housewares stores, a combination of industrial and luxurious.  I think I remained pretty cool, considering.  I bought a huge paella pan to use for paella or many other foods on our backyard wood barbecue, a salad spinner, 10 linen napkins, and an olive oil pourer to keep near the stove for cooking.  I took a picture of the woman checking me out.  She was surprised, but she couldn’t know how long it has been since I’ve had a dose of retail cool like this.

            Finally, I took some pictures of our wonderful boutique hotel, Villa Emilia.  This is such a clever hotel: urban, hip, comfortable, smart.  We have loved staying here and I will be using many of the ideas I have seen.  

            Lots and lots of visual stimulation in Barcelona.  It will be resonating with me for some time.

And the Cheese Tray Stole the Evening

            We are eating a lot of rich food this week, particularly shellfish.  I thought I might have an inexhaustible appetite for shellfish, but I am noticing a saturation building up.  I read Bill Bryson’s new book Home this winter.  In one chapter he described how plentiful lobsters were on the Atlantic coast of America during the Industrial Revolution.  They were so common, in fact, that factory workers included in their union negotiations a limit to the number of times per week they would be fed lobster as their employee meal.  So I guess it is possible to have had enough. 
            For something different, we tried a restaurant of Galician culture.  This is an autonomous cultural region in the northwest corner of Spain on the Atlantic.  Galicia has some topographical distinctions from other parts of Spain.  Due to the mountains that rise up from the sea, Galicia has a multitude of small rivers giving it the moniker, “land of a thousand rivers”.  Another distinguishing feature, and also related to its interaction with water, is the presence of many, many inlets called rias, which were drowned out estuaries following Europe’s last ice age.  These inlets are rich beds for the growth of sea life.  Our restaurant was called Rias de Galicia and now we both have the context to understand the name.

            But it was not the seafood, but the cheese tray, offered at the end of the meal, that was the most interesting for us.  Because of Galicia’s geographic connection to the British Isles, and the mountains of Switzerland, France, and Italy, they had sourced a rare combination of cheeses.  When we read the following description on the menu, we simply had to try them:
These cheeses have been selected after a tasting blindly of 28 of the best cheeses of all the world among our customers and friends: and then it goes on to actually name the restaurants nine and possibly blind friends who gave their thumbs up to the cheese platter selections.  We didn’t have one disagreement and here they are from left to right.

1.     Abbaye de Citeaux                        Upper Savoy (France)
Made using only raw whole milk from cows which pasture in the monastery.  It comes from the Reblochon family and has a creamy texture with a yeast and fresh walnut taste.

2.     Vacherin Haut-Doubs                        Mont d’Or Massif
                                                                 (France-Switzerland border)
There has always been some discussion about who was the first to produce Vacherin cheese.  From this confrontation (their word), we have had two different kinds of Vacherins:  the French Haut-doubs and the Swiss Mont d’Or.  Either way, the cheese, being made of raw cow milk, is sticky and tender.  The taste will remind you of grass and it smells like cut wood and resin.

3.     Pouligny St. Pierre                        Central Region (France)
It is popularly know as the Eiffel Tower because of its shape.  It is made of raw goat milk, giving it an intense smell of goat milk and straw.  It becomes acidic as it ripens, with a hazelnut aftertaste.

4.     Payoyo with bran                        Cadiz (Spain)
Coming from the south of Spain, this cured cheese is made of raw Papoya sheep milk and ripened with fat and bran for a minimum of 8 months.

5.     Abondance Fermier                        Summer 2008, Upper Savoy (France)
Abondance is an original cheese from the Upper Savoy between Lemman Lake and Mont Blanc.  It has been made for more than 1000 years by St. Marie d’Abondance monks.  It belongs to the gruyere or comte family, but is smaller with a stronger taste.

6.     Cheddar Montgomery’s             Offaly County (Southern Ireland)
Typical English cheese is made of raw cow milk and curd.  It takes more than 12 months to ripen and is one of the most valued kinds of cheese in the isle.  The taste is balanced and the smell is of humidity and wood that comes from the cotton cloth and the fat that cover the pieces when they are taken to the natural caves to ripen.  It is sweet and not very salty.  

7.     Testum al Barolo                        (Northern Italy)
This is a mixture of cow, goat, and a little buffalo milk, managing to have an amazing image since the cheese is wrapped with Barolo wine raisins.

8.     Stichelton                                    Nottinghamshire (Great Britain)
Unlike the famous English Stilton, this wonderful kind of blue cheese is made of raw and whole cow milk.  As it comes from London surrounding, it ripens quickly and so does its taste.  It is sweet, tasty, and with a strong hazelnut final taste.  

And to complete the tasting:
Three confits:  rose petals, green figs, and wild strawberries
Three dessert wines:  Ochoa Moscatel, Oremus Tokaji, Olivares

The cheese menu ends with an invitation:  

If you want to be promised of the next selection of cheeses of Rias, make it for us know.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


            I remember beginning to hear about Spanish tapas sometime in the last decade and the first time I actually had them was in Alexandria, Virginia at a wonderful Spanish restaurant.  I had pictured ordering tapas would be a Spanish version of ordering sushi off of a little conveyor belt, but the dishes we had that night were more like a series of starter or first course dishes made to order from a menu.  The plates were very good, but two, three, or at the most four was a full meal for two people so I still didn’t understand the Spanish idea of nibbling on these before going to dinner.  I have been curious ever since to find out what the true Spanish tapas are like.
            The idea is simple and evolves from a little saying, “Eat when you drink and drink when you eat”.  This isn’t a motto from over a tavern door, but comes from a more agrarian setting where men didn’t drink at home and didn’t drink alone.  They congregated after a day’s work at a home or commercial wine cellar to share a glass with their neighbors.  Following the above saying, they would have some bread with a simple topping of ham or cheese and place it atop their glass, between bites, to keep the flies off, thus the tapas, or top.  If another glass was poured, a different snack was introduced allowing them to communally enjoy the food along with the wine.  From this comes the variety of plates expected at a tapas bar or restaurant.  

            The first spectacular tapas restaurant we encountered in Barcelona had a display of about 100 premade plates, mostly comprised of multi-layered open-faced baguette sandwiches.  They were each little bits of artwork, but I feared, when we ordered a selection for lunch, that they might just look pretty, but all taste about the same.  You know the experience of those disappointing buffet sandwiches?  I’m happy to report, however, that my fears were unfounded.  Each one was a unique layering of a spread, a meat, a cheese, maybe some caramelized onions, and then little garnishes like olives, a shaving of a marinated vegetable, or even caviar that didn’t just look pretty, but actually contributed to the overall mouthful.  They were fun to eat, but they were rich.  

            We have been following the restaurant advice of a Barcelona resident Allan recently met and when Allan told me the restaurant he had made a reservation at for that night also specialized in tapas, I frankly felt a little sick.  I really didn’t think I could face more of those over the top little sandwiches.  But we went to the restaurant, an old place that is so small that when someone uses the cubicle sized washroom, they have to run the loud, electric hand dryer right in the dining space.  The waitress told us they had two specials of the day.  One was fresh clams in a garlic butter sauce and the other was baby octopus with beans.  Thinking …when in Barcelona… we ordered her two suggestions.  The clams came first and tasted exactly as clams in butter sauce always do.  

 Then came the beans and octopus dish.  What a surprise.  Two foods that had never previously been associated in my mind before were intermarried on this plate.  The white beans were soft and buttery, the octopus pieces were no bigger than the end of my pinkie and they were tender and blended with the soft bean flavor rather than standing out with fishiness.  All of this sat surrounded by a pool of a light flavored olive oil.  I don’t know how this sounds to you, but it was the best thing I have put in my mouth or my stomach since I got here.  It was Spanish comfort food and I am thinking my way through an attempt to replicate it at home.  There is no picture, but it wouldn’t look like much anyway because it was just mostly white.
            I researched some tapas recipes and quickly saw that many of them err on the side of being too simplistic, going down that dreadful road of looking cute, but tasting ubiquitous.  This particular website offers 71 tapas recipes and they actually look pretty authentic, meaning, multi flavored and built around seafood or jamon. Unfortunately, I don’t see my coveted white beans with baby octopus on the list so I think I’m still going to have to make that one up, somehow.  But I may try a few of these others, too. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gaudi All Day

            One of the “must dos” when in Barcelona is to study the works of the Modernista architect, interior designer, and artist, Antoni Gaudi.  Living in Catalonia between 1852 and 1926, he is Barcelona’s native son.
            To understand the context of his work you must learn something about the Modernistas in Spain.  This was a social movement at the end of the 19th century that had an element of reaction to a perception that Spanish, particularly Catalonian, culture had fallen behind that of its European neighbors in sophistication and innovation.  Catalonian artists, writers, and architects were inspired to create, making references to Gothic and Islamic architecture, but personalizing and humanizing those styles. The Modernistas incorporated motifs from the natural world, such as plants and other organic shapes, similarly to what was taking place in the Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts Movement in the US and other parts of Europe. 

Antoni Gaudi’s designs repeat ideas from his four loves: architecture, nature, religion, and Catalonia, particularly the sea.  He heavily used decorative detail, especially mosaics, in curvaceous, asymmetrical structures.

Even today, his works are slightly unsettling.  I can’t even imagine how they were received in his time.  When I look at synonyms for ornate, the following are listed: elaborate, flowery, florid, grandiose, pompous, pretentious, high-flown, orotund, magniloquent, grandiloquent, rhetorical, oratorical, bombastic, overwrought, overblown and every one of them seemed true of his work, even the ones I’d never heard of before.  But walking around the Park Güell and entering his fantasy of a cottage on the site, a definite peace and serenity transpired.  There is a balance, even if it is not symmetry. 

I admire Catalonia for its inspiring natural beauty, for being an open society where a man like Gaudi could express his passions and vision in a huge way (see Sagrada Familia), for not tearing these buildings down when they went way out of fashion, and for funding and even continuing to add to them today.
And then, of course, we had lunch, at 3:00.