Thursday, December 30, 2010

What the New Year Brings


I'm so very new at this, but I'm getting a kick out of it. I've always thought I'd be a good editor, of a magazine, say, or books—paring covers with text, images with content. Blogging is a medium of its own and I love the immediacy of it, that I and I alone make the decisions, that no one keeps me waiting, that no one has authority over me, that the marketing guys never come along and say, "Oh no, it'll never sell." The beauty of this blog for me is that nothing's for sale (except my books, of course, just over there to the right.) And so I intend to go on with this; I'm headed down a trail that seems to hold promise and one foot keeps going out ahead of the other and so far I always seem to come up with ideas. In the coming months these pages will offer posts about gardens, most of all, my first love. In the spring, we'll take a look at the gardens of Umbria, and this winter the private gardens of Antigua, Guatemala. I'll also post a series on the garden of Vilandry, one of the most impressive gardens in all of Europe. But there will be lots of lesser gardens published here as well, the small gardens of my friends and neighbors. There will be a bit more about New England, too, and a few posts on Iran, its villas and gardens, one of the most dynamic countries in the world to travel in. And lastly, I'll run a series on my home city of Lucca, Italy. I'll focus on its attractions, its visuals, its culture, its hotels and its restaurants. Wherever the year takes me I'll have my little Canon 850 IS in my pocket and if the shot seems at all good to me then I'll let you have a look. Hope to see you thumbing through Gervaisdebédée in the coming months, but for now, have a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lunch at Trattoria Tambellini

It's so nice to have a lovely little spot to go to not far from home and where you can meet your friends for a holiday lunch when you're all still in the Christmas spirit. Trattoria Tambellini, sometimes called Mescita Lotti, is just the place, and if you're lucky they'll have room for you.

The tables are modestly laid, but the glasses invite good wine, and there's plenty of that here.

This is the bar, (one of two) where they slice up the prosciutto di parma that Italians love as an antipasto fresh off the slicer, paper thin—fifteen minutes later it's just not the same.

There were six of us that day and this is where we sat. I'm amused by the clever headrests—I suppose if you threw your head back in a moment of allegria it wouldn't be so nice to hit the stone wall, which is five hundred years old and bound to be hard. All the lighting here is manufactured by Martinelli Luce of Lucca.

The menu, hand-written daily, proposes light and traditional fare.

Such as these tortellini in brodo, a dish many of us in Tuscany eat at Christmastime.

Or these matuffi: polenta baked in the oven with tomato sauce and a grating of Parmigiano.

Or a salad of vegetables, "some cooked, some raw," as the menu said.

In the warmer months one dines in the courtyard. Trattoria Tambellini, Lucca, a charming, much loved little place.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Eve 2010

Casual and at home. Christmas eve finds us by the fireside reading and listening to Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols. The socks, by Cordings, are a present received that very morning from John Armbruster, expert d'art, and his wife Milou. The green velvet house slippers are old and British, by John Rushton.

A relaxed dinner in the conservatory, a 1950s addition to the kitchen, where I've kept it all in tones of silver and gray, ivory and white and yet it still looks like Christmas to me—thank you Reggie for the tip.

The great tradition in my family is to eat lobster stew before going to midnight mass. I've grown up throwing live lobsters into cauldrons of boiling water and I've never lost a moment's sleep over it.

My mother's lobster stew. She always dressed it on top with a dash of paprika, but I've made it slightly Tuscan here with a drizzle of our own newly pressed extra virgin olive oil as well. The side dish of erbette was picked in the olive grove that morning, a mix for several varieties of wild greens. They're coarsely chopped and sauteed in olive oil with lots of garlic.

Pears are a great winter delight in this part of the world and the local markets are full—though of course we have our own. This time of year they reach their peak of ripeness, sweet and tangy. The secret to this classic, rustic pear tart is to use only pears that are ready to eat on the day.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Card

A Christmas present from the heavens—after all, what could be more nostalgic for me having grown up in northern Massachusetts, just a stone's throw from New Hampshire where my ancestors had lived for more than nine generations? I've had snow in my boots since birth.

But this isn't New England. It's Massa Macinaia, a small village near Lucca, Italy, and this is my garden under the snow. For the second time in as many years we've had a big snowfall here, unheard of to old timers. In fact, in the 29 winters we've spent in this villa, on this land, in this climate, this is only the second time it's happened.

The Umbraculum assumes a candid, shaggy pose. The climbing roses are sagging, the sculpted hedges have lost their formality. The snow's already melting, as you can see, and odds are that it won't happen again any time soon.

And so we shut ourselves inside and view this spectacle only through the windowpanes while a fire roars in the red room where we go on peacefully reading our books pausing only occasionally to reflect upon this festive season with a wistful awe and gratefulness for all that we have and what we've done. Happy Christmas and Holiday Time, peace and joy to all.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What is Gil Wearing?

First of all, Gil is colorblind. I have to accept or reject his morning choice of color combinations, offering alternative suggestions when possible. But in that love is blind as well I sometimes don't notice that he's wearing blue and brown together, for instance, and therefore let him go about his day with thorough disinvoltura. That said, Gil Cohen is a dapper fellow, a blend of the artist, the humanitarian, the bumptious baron, the gentle dreamer, the spiritual advisor, the esthete, the lenient professor, the hippy, the nobleman, the funky guy. He always turns the heads of those who take one look and think, "Gee, I think I'd really like to know that friendly man! Wonder who he is?" Here at Saint Germain des Pres, in the heart of Paris, Gil is sporting (Thank you James Andrew for the format) a bespoke traditional Sienese Casentino coat with a possum collar by Luciano Galacci, a soft hat by Arnys, a silk scarf from Gieves and Hawkes, cashmere sweater by Franco Montanelli of Lucca (who is also our bespoke shirtmaker), cotton winter trousers by Incotex, and waterproof (it would be snowing in a few minutes) (and I mean waterproof, and not water-resistant) trudgers by Timberland. The green dearskin gloves are from Le Bon Marché.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

One Foot in Brasserie Lipp

While Le Jardin du Bâtiment played out live across these pages I was in Paris for an extended pre-holiday visit. Gil and I always make it a point to have at least one meal at Brasserie Lipp while there—we love chatting with whoever is to our left or right, always charming and interesting people with news and engaging smiles. But today we brought our own entertainment: the man whose hands appear in the above photo.

Richard Wilson is one of the UK's most celebrated comic actors, and more importantly, our dear friend of nearly thirty years.

Who hasn't seen at least one episode of One Foot in the Grave? It ran for more than ten seasons, starting in the 1990s, and it was one of the most successful situation comedies ever produced in England. You can always see replays on BBC Gold, or in the US on PBS.

But Richard is just as busy nowadays as ever, directing theater and working generously for the vast array of charities he supports. Here he is as Gaius, a new character in a new take on the old Arthurian legend. He's the young Merlin's mentor and court physician. "He has a very long CV and quite a dark past," Richard told the press when the series, Merlin, debuted two years ago. Merlin is now in its third season and can be seen in more that 148 countries.


The sparkling venue of Lipp made for a wonderful launching pad from which we began our two fun days going around Pairs with Richard—it culminated in a lavish dinner at Les Ambassadeurs where we were his delighted honored guests.

And after lunch we crossed the street to Deux Magots for a coffee in the open air in sub-freezing temperatures—not surprisingly, no one seemed to recognize him that afternoon! Gil snapped this photo of Richard and me.

Earlier we'd picked him up at L'Hotel on Rue Des Beaux Arts. It's designed by Jacques Garcia and it's one of the most perfect bijou box hotels in Paris. This is Richard's luxurious suite. These are his gloves, hat and i-phone.

In the lobby I fancied this clever flower arrangement.

Jacques Garcia has a distinctive look and it's totally Parisian—wouldn't you expect Princess Matilde to waltz through with a few select members of her salon gossiping about Emile Zola?

In the center of it all is this extraordinary neoclassical stairwell open to the lobby below lending enormous grandeur to this otherwise tiny hotel of infinite warmth and charm! Richard loved it (good thing, I'd sent him there!)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Last Look at du Bâtiment (Part VI)

The elegant austerity of the west façade is that of a patrician country house of measured dignity. It is genteel and only slightly haughty with its modest coat of arms over the neoclassical doorway. It's a landowner's house, clearly, one of refinement and discretion.

But it's a farmhouse as well, and owner William Christie has preserved that country spirit, especially around the more informal wing where once farm hands might have lived.

But the garden is worthy of a grand chateau, surely, or a wealthy monastery whose monks are from only the best families and have brought their talents and their patrimony with them.

What joy it inspires in the garden lover, however! It's a treasure trove of inspirational ideas, many of which can be transposed to the diminutive if this be the gardener's lot.


The bell tower sounds the hour, and each of its five bells are named after a close friend of Mr. Christie's. Please note, Jardin du Bâtiment is open to the public, but only on a limited basis. For more information click here.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More Christie Images (Part V)

The landscape here is broad and open and when Christie found the place it was full of limitless possibility. The yew hedging shown above encloses the garden that is more intensely worked and planted while closing out the countryside or the farm, so to speak.

Just a few years ago this basin was built, somewhat in the style of the great gardens of André Le Notre.

The water was borrowed from the charming river that passes through the property.

This illustration shows the technique for making a hedge to form a series of open arches. First, one must face the costly and laborious job of forming an iron structure.


The farm elements are delightfully picturesque. Below, we see the East façade embellished by a multitude of potted plants and a few yew sculptural elements, which haven't as yet seen the pruner's blade this year.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A French Garden Paradise (Part IV)

William Christie has repeatedly mentioned to me that his celebrated garden Jardin du Bâtiment is not a plantsman's garden at all, but rather the garden of a designer and artist. This little cluster of potted plants around an antique urn might attest to that. The plants themselves are not particularly unusual or noteworthy from a botanical point of view; it's their arrangement in such a way that achieves the singular result.

"In 1985, while out for a drive around the area, William Christie glimpsed, at the other side of a river, an imposing, dignified building. The harmony between the building and its surrounding was such that the structure seemed to be growing out of the earth itself. Approaching more closely, he realised that the house was abandoned. He was able to look around inside and there discovered some astonishing architectural details—not least a collection of magnificent fireplaces that clearly dated from the construction of the house. It was love at first sight, and several weeks later he had bought it. It was the first house William Christie had owned. He saw ahead of him a lifetime's mission to bring life and soul back to this, his new home." (This from Mr. Christie's wed site.)

Here again, it's not about plants. In this case, it's the color red and the satisfaction of bloom that take center stage.

I saw a photograph of this arch long before ever thinking to visit here and it inspired me to do something similar here in Massa Macinaia. My green arch, however, is fashioned of Muehlenbeckia complexa and it graces a cantina door rather than a window.

The Jardin du Batiment evolves day by day. A detail, a drawing, seen in a book 40 years ago, resurge in William Christie's memory and become a realisation. An idea emerges from a visit to an Italian garden, or from reading a treatise on ancient gardens, and becomes real. Since his childhood, William Christie has accumulated details which contribute to this eclectic and personal garden.

No charming moment of place is too insignificant to warrant the high level of artistic concern exercised throughout this splendid property. He could have build a simple masonry step here couldn't he? Notice the framing structure below where another green arch will soon appear!