Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Grande Dame of Villa d'Este


Every party needs its life and what is a grand hotel if not a party that never ends?—till you sadly check out. Perhaps, sadly too, there is only one truly grand hotel left in all the world. It's Villa d'Este on lake Como in northern Italy, a unique and glorious monument to the highest level of hospitality! The glamorous lady shown above, at dinner with me on Saturday night at Villa d'Este's famed Veranda restaurant, is Giovanna "Jean" Govoni Salvadore, and she and no one else is the life of Villa d'Este.

She lives behind that Gothic door in the middle of one of the most celebrated gardens in Italy, a five minute's walk to the main entrance of the hotel—though nowadays, what with the toll time takes on one's legs, it can take her a little longer.

She emerges in red today determined to meet up with Gil and me for breakfast even though it's Sunday and she could have slept late if she'd really wanted to.

She's going it alone this morning (she's often escorted by adoring bellmen) even though the leg hurts but she's got her crutch, also red, and a Villa d'Este bag with something special inside to pull out and show us once we're settled in one of the most beautiful breakfast rooms in all the hotel world.

And though she says she really doesn't appreciate having her picture taken her picture has been taken with every celebrity Hollywood has produced since the early twentieth century, with every head of state and every crowned head for that matter because all of these people have made their way to Villa d'Este over the years and all of them have made friends with Jean Govoni Salvadore, the friendly face whose welcoming greeting quickly transforms this daunting atmosphere into a relaxed and homey one. Put far too simply Madame Salvadore is (though in fact she has no title) the director of public relations for the hotel. But that doesn't truly describe what it is she does—she's not even on the payroll! She's a fixture here. She's the hotel's image. She's its soul. She runs the place—but it's a labor of pure love.

This is what she had in her bag. Her new book, to be released this May. It's not her first book. She's published several others, all of which talk about some aspect of the hotel: its distinguished past, its glorious present, its divine food. She's a wonderful writer with an addictive sense of humor and a penetrating memory that preserves all the color of any magic moment. My Dolce Vita tells Jean Govoni Salvadore's life story. The cover notes say, "Growing up during the Second World War, becoming the first Public Relations executive in Italy for Howard Hughes and TWA (1947-1966) and following that with her 40-plus years as director of PR at the world's best hotel (according to Forbes magazine), the Villa d'Este on Lake Como, Jean has brushed shoulders with some of the most elegant, famous and notable people of the last century."

When she leaned towards her cup of coffee I snapped this double portrait of Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins who'd beamed and smiled broadly as Jean entered the room on my arm—perhaps he'll find himself in the next volume even though his movies scare her to death!

Sunday, March 27, 2011



Rossoramina is a ceramic studio here in Lucca. A husband and wife operation, Federica and Stefano Gambogi keep up with the times in their remote workshop far from the input of a big multicultural city but their minds and inspiration are broad and international.

These pieces on the floor that look like vases are in fact lamps—light would pass through thousands of tine holes that appear in the thistle design or in the grid form.

But these are vases; they're very impressive in clusters.

Not long ago I posted a photo of four pitchers by Rossoramina. This one and the one below are more recent creations.

Stefano trained as a sculptor. This nude lady with an uncertain look on her face watches over the husband and wife artists with cautiously withheld approval.

I never asked what these buxom snake-coiled damsels will end up doing.

The unfired ceramics are such pure perfection, but I must admit that the final product is even more impressive.

The thistle theme seems to have taken hold in many of their new works. Here it is on a gleaming pure white vase.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Villa d'Este: a garden and a context


A few such places still exist, places where time has left things unmolested, where the artful hand of man has touched an already existing natural beauty and respect for the end result is so high that it survives even in this era of wanton, widespread destruction. One such place is Lake Como in Northern Italy and this is the way it looked to me last Sunday morning: just as it must have looked hundreds of years ago.

And on this lake stands one of the world's great hotels, if not the last remaining truly grand hotel in all the world, Villa d'Este. In Italy we call the kind of garden shown above a parco: a sprawling plot of ground around an old villa in which we find architectural embellishments, like this grotto, ancient trees and imaginative solutions to tidy formality. Whoever manages this parco does a splendid job of it as not a blade of grass is out of place and no expense is spared in planting out colorful annuals in neat beds to give the visitor a sense of pure luxury.

"Set on the banks of one of the most romantic lakes in the world and just north of Milan, Villa d'Este was built in 1568 as the summer residence of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. The property comprises 25 acres of gardens, whose statues and landscape have been photographed for centuries. The favourite playground of an Empress, an English queen and aristocrats, it was transformed into a luxury hotel in 1873. Continuously renovated and updated, without sacrificing any of its old-world charm, Villa d'Este today offers 152 rooms, all different in decor but linked by the superior standards of hospitality that you expect from one of Europe's truly legendary resorts."

It was a beautiful morning last Sunday and I had the garden to myself, practically, as all the other guest finished off their leisurely breakfasts. I'm especially in love with this wall-enclosed fountain, as if it were in the middle of a grandiose room with only the open heavens for a ceiling.

And the view out of it, of the lakeshore, a stroll away, is nothing less than stunning. The glass conservatory to the right is the hotel's incredible dining room—you're eating in a garden of preserved history.

The hotel has an annex called the Queen's Pavilion. It's the epitome of old Lake Como style, the Gothic touches here and there, the pergola of grapes, the river-stone-paved descent to the water's edge where boats are sometimes stored.

If you want to rent an entire house on the estate, there are a few of them. This one is a gem, and it's perched directly on the lake.

We always stay in the villa itself, facing southeast into the warm morning sun. The atmosphere of limitless service insists that you do absolutely nothing while here, but for the restless there's an extraordinary spa, tennis, boat rides and walks to the charming village of Cernobbio.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Potager at Gresgarth


How many people bother with devising methods for entering among the vegetables to ensure that your shoes remain mud free and the plants unmolested? You're more likely to find this high level of gardening in England than anywhere else in the world, and perhaps no one does it better than Arabella Lennox-Boyd.

You enter this potager as if climbing the steps of an altar to receive the sacrament of Earth's bounty. It's a garden with a totally practical raison d'etre, but it's grounded in the aesthetic.

There are elegant schemes in response to every vegetable grower's needs. Note the lacquered red turned finials mounted on stakes.

And when plants get to be a certain height they need support; even that's foreseen with artistry.

And the beauty of it all is such that you might just stop and meditate, much the way you'd do in Gresgarth's ornamental gardens, which I've shown you in previous posts.

No space is wasted and nothing is simply planted without order and an eye on the finished look of things.

Beds that need to be raised are framed out in wattle and the wattle is framed out in ceramic cordon.

Labels are affixed to everything, with the planting dates.

The greenhouse beyond is reserved for orchids. I wandered in just as the central mister opened fire—don't think I wasn't impressed!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Visit to the Fishermen


I've often said that in another life I'd like to be a port cat. I'd hang out waiting for the fishing boats to come in at dawn, grooving on the atmosphere, the smells, the sounds, the visuals. Or I could be a fisherman, but not like those in The Perfect Storm, no, not at all, a fisherman with a little boat like this one above.

I wouldn't be a greedy fisherman raking the ocean floors with an eye on getting rich. I'd bring in a haul a bit like this one shown here, a few young stingrays, some soles, and a modest quantity of shrimps.

The octopus was moving when I took this picture, but I'm not at all sentimental about the fishes of the seas. I eat them. Octopus is the true flavor of the Mediterranean and when it's prepared in the proper manner it can't be beat!

Little red mullets are fantastic in a pasta sauce, but today I was after these shrimp. This Lucca seaport has some of the best seafood in the world—the best raw material and the best cooks!

It's not the most picturesque of places by a long shot, but it's a real town with real fishermen and I love stopping by once in a while to bring some of the fresh catch home to my kitchen half an hour away in Massa Macinaia.

Al guazetto is the name of this classic Tuscan recipe for shrimps. In Tuscan cooking less is more. A clove of garlic, in paper thin slices, a chopped pepperoncino (hot pepper), olive oil, white wine, all over high heat. Once it gets going cover it and turn off the flame. Three minutes. At that point, you throw in a tiny bit of minced fresh tomato (from Sicily in this case). This isn't "Per Se." This is fine dining!

I serve this in vassoio, which means on a serving dish and not portioned out for the individual. This is the humble Tuscan way to serve dinner and I really feel it's the way to go! It's so rare to have wild fresh shrimp nowadays and I do feel privileged and grateful—most of the shrimp that make their way to our tables are farmed in Thailand or Guatemala and frozen before shipping; they don't taste anything like this.

Side dish: sauteed potatoes with fennel, leek (seasonal from our garden) and pitted Tuscan olives.

I truly believe in "zero kilometers" and for this little supper of mine I'm serving a rosé wine (even though it says bianco) from the Garfagnana, the hills just to the north of Lucca.

It's still the season for locally produced pears, brought up out of cold storage from last summer's crop. If you get it right there's no better fruit in the world.

Look how juicy and tart!

Put this next to a slice of sheep cheese, also from the Grafagnana, garnished with a drop of extra virgin olive oil (ours) and a dusting of black pepper!

And if a friend has just returned from Brussels with a box of Belgian chocolates, well finish off the evening with it then! Vai!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Garden of Gresgarth II


Perhaps this was a mill house back in the 14th century when it was built. The oldest surviving portions of Gresgarth Hall consist of a two story building, 48' long and 27' wide, with a tunnel vault on the ground floor. The central portion of the vault has been removed, probably when Gresgarth was remodeled early in the nineteenth century, and various doorways and windows have been inserted on the ground floor in later, more secure, times.

And no more secure or peaceful times than these have ever lent their confidence to the grounds surrounding this charming old house. This, above, is a bit of the long double herbaceous border that begins with an ornately paved terrace.

A large pond has been created near the house offering an hospitable home to all manner of aquatic plants, and trees and bushes that benefit from the proximity of water. There's even a little boat for a lazy summer turn.

Wattle towers peek out everywhere in these lush mixed borders, usually as climbing structures for roses.

In the center of the garden is a vast lawn, almost like a village green. It's completely delineated by double hedging—a dream hide-and-seek for the little ones.

This imaginative walk, framed out by espaliered fruit trees, meanders through a wildflower meadow at the garden's edge.

I don't usually propose my garden photographic skills at the expense of horticultural art in itself, but this shot isn't bad!

It's a big garden, this. There are five gardeners here full time but you might even wonder if it's still not enough, especially with so many deep herbaceous borders to tend where the goal is to see no bare ground in high summer.

And it's full of invention and wonder, wattle art and fantasy.