Sunday, May 29, 2011

Poolside Lunch


When summer comes upon us we love to entertain by the pool, a swim and lunch for a few friends, never more than six of us. The apricots are the first of the season. The tablecloth is from Antigua, Guatemala.

The scene is this, sunbathing for those who want it, a swim to cool you off. Our pool is almost 30 years old!

A lunch under the pergola.

And while you eat the view is this.

A salad Gil made, lettuce, rucola and nasturtiums.

A few fine cheeses, all Italian.

A fritata of herbs from the fields, made by Ottavia, garnished with borage flowers.

Anchovies on a bed of lettuce with red peppercorns and spring onions.

Zucchini from the garden fried and tossed in basil and vinegar, local tomatoes (but it's a little early for our own) with coriander and chopped spring onion.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Portofino Pause


I couldn't remember how long it had been since we'd been to Portofino. Was it ten years? We'd been invited to Piemonte for a lunch with the board members of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum of Boston at the Calvi di Bergolo castle in Montemagno that I once posted here.

Half way home lies this magnificent coastal area of Liguria, the most famous town of which is Portofino, and we decided to stop there for a night.

We stayed at the Splendido Mare, which is visible in this photograph, the group of narrow buildings on the far left. Notice here the fine white sea taxi waiting for a fare to Santa Margarita.

Little has changed in Portofino since our last visit all those years ago; if gives you a certain sense of hope and confidence that the best of the planet is still intact and ready for the next generation of honeymooners—I noticed several.

The charming narrow houses along the port, painted up in the Ligurian manner, the small cafes, the quite, the seaside smells.

The bobbing boats—I'm not showing you the yacht "Majestic," a 1,000 meter tub of tasteless belching plastic docked further out on the quay, all that volume for a handful of fudge fund fatties from New York.

It's nice to have a drink at Jolly before dinner and overhear the delighted visitors' conversations and wonder who they are and how they got here!

And to dine at Puny, the best-know restaurant in town—it's where the local people prefer to go.

Their spaghetti with anchovies, arucola and garlic is divine.

The thinly sliced fish is called ombrina and it melts in the mouth. The stuff on the left is octopus cooked with artichokes. Sorry it's half eaten, I got carried away.

These wonderful boats are called paraggina. Construction of these elegant wooden launches, between 6.60 and 7.48 metres long, began in 1982 on the initiative of Giorgio Mussini, a true Portofino native born in 1939 and son of a skipper. At the age of ten he was already taking tourists out on boat trips to swim between San Fruttuoso and Paraggi. Now over 110 of the yard’s boats are on the water. If I lived here I would surely have one.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Villa San Martinello; Fit for a Marquis


A villa from the 18th century seems almost new to those of us who live in Lucca—my own house was nearly two-hundred and fifty years old when this villa was built near the city of Perugia in central Italy.

San Martinello stands upon the ruins of a medieval castle, destroyed during the 1540 “salt war;” its foundation was used for the “secret” garden of the villa, which you'll see further along in this post. Work began on the villa, the country residence of the counts Donini, in 1730, under the direction of architect Pietro Carattoli. Lodovico Woodland Alfani and his wife Ilka von Saucken spent more than ten years and a great fortune repairing damages from the war and now the villa is in fine shape. It's the present day home of Paolo and Clara Caucci von Saucken.

In front of the villa is this curious labyrinth, fashioned of brick and mortar. The paths are formed with an almost ground level structure so that you can see all the route's twists and turns to the center before you ever enter it: a mysterious journey mostly for the eyes!

Perhaps it had once been fashioned of low dwarf box that had died off and it was believed that this would need less maintenance. I should have asked.

The so called "secret garden" is classic renaissance in style, elegant in its simplicity yet imposing in its scale. I admired the placement of the four oil jars. It's a garden of total equilibrium.

A magnificent pergola of wisteria, not yet in flower here a few weeks ago when I visited the villa, runs along one entire side of the garden.

The valley-facing facade is finished with this magnificent terrace with a grandiose retaining wall that includes a pair of curving staircases descending to the farmlands below.

We're standing on the terrace here looking towards this impressive regal gate beyond which are the stables and courtyard. This combination of ochre rendering and pale red brick is exceptionally pleasing to the eye. Could you see yourselves living in such a place?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Few Roses


You wait all year for something that happens only once, and yet, if it happened more than once would it have the same value? We don't hesitate to choose antique roses here at Villa Massei, even though they never reflower. This is the case with Claire Jacquier, a noisette rose chosen for its considerable prowess as a climber. Bred in 1889 its flowers are shapely, of a rich egg-yellow color turning to pale yellow as they age, and they fill the air with a rich perfume.

It's a walk of rose scent. It envelops you, fixing the moment in your memory so that it lasts all year long till you get to enjoy it again the following year. If there's any one period of the year to visit my garden then it's now—it's like Barnsley House when the laburnum and alliums were both in flower, an event I had the great fortune to experience twice.

But we have hundreds of roses here, almost all of which are antique. This one, however, is obviously not. Pierre de Ronsard, the rose, was hybridized by Marie-Louise Meilland from the Family owned French rose company Meilland Roses in 1987. In the UK the rose is mostly known as Eden Rose but it was named Pierre de Ronsard after the great French poet. In America the rose is often called Eden Rose Climber. Some rose lovers actually detest it, thinking it fake-looking, too perfect, but I must say that its obvious beauty seduces me every time I come across it, which is frequently as it's enormously popular by now.

It looks top-dipped!

Chapeau de Napoleon is a moss rose from 1827, so named because the unopened buds resemble Napoleon's hat!

Of white roses I love the ultimate purity of Frau Karl Druschki, created in 1901. For many years this was the most popular white rose in existence, in spite of the lack of scent. The pure white flowers are large and globular, opening from high-pointed buds, and are lovely both on the bush and in a bouquet. Over the years this rose has been known by several descriptive names, including 'Snow Queen' and 'White American Beauty.'

Our rose garden just off the kitchen is a treasure trove of bloom right now. In the back are two English Roses by David Austin, Gertrude Jekyll and Graham Thomas, and in front are several antique roses including Duchess d'Auerstadt, Maiden's Blush and Hardy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Not-So-Tuscan Restaurant


This photograph, for me, seems to sum up what this new restaurant in the hills of Lucca is all about: it's like a classic Tuscan country chair that's been given a contemporary twist.

We've made several visits since "discovering" it a few months ago, and every time we sing its praises on the way home. It's a modest enough place, casual in fact and relaxed, but it's high on quality that expresses itself in every whimsical detail. All the chairs are wrapped like this in various colored string as you can see—it was an afternoon activity for Serendepico's talented 23-year-old chef Damiano Donati and his girlfriend, capo sala Chiara Bertoneri—they're full of fun ideas and drive!

Damiano's bread is all about the gastronomic nostalgia of lost ingredients. Not only is his yeast his own—his yoghurt or grape-derived "mother" is more than a year old—but he uses locally grown flour. The bread on the right is made with spelt and whole wheat flour while the one on the left is of potato flour. His grissini (bread sticks) are infused with curcuma (tumeric) then tossed in corn flower before baking.

These little teasers arrive first: shiso and salt cod purée in a tempura ball.

Deep, generously stuffed ravioli of Asiago cheese and fresh thyme, topped with a smoky tasting "caviar" of eggplant.

Spaghettoni in a reduction of mussels, dusted with a grating of oven-dried mussels, prepared by the chef himself.

Damiano's the one in white!

Relais del Lago, its host establishment, is a charming "bed and breakfast" in the hills of Gragnano, fifteen minutes from the ancient walls of Lucca. It's a wonderful little place to stay for a Lucchese holiday: a family home, in every way, and with a stunning pool with views off to the Pisan hills. But what makes it a true "destination" is the extraordinary restaurant Serendepico through that last arched door in the distance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Villa with an Older Garden


People who follow my blog might get the mistaken impression that Italy is a land of perfection, where all gardens are well tended and where all important monuments are held safe for generations to come. When great properties fall into public hands here in Italy they're placed in competition for survival with the entire patrimony of a nation with the world's largest concentration of fine art and historic landmarks. In England the National Trust has had great success with keeping up its great gardens, but not so here in Italy, alas.

Take Villa Fidelia, for instance. These baroque gardens and the 19th century villa in its midst, now belong to the city of Spello, in Umbria. The property was first developed by the Urbani family in the late 15th century or early 16th, though there had once been a Roman temple on the site. Now it's used for municipal functions.

This house is from the 19th century and though it's quite grand and imposing on its hillside near Spello it's not a villa of great distinction.

It was Donna Teresa Pamphili Grillo who built the Italian gardens here in the mid 18th century adjacent to the house that the one above replaced. This very long giardino al'Italiana boasts a classic layout in an architectural support of very good bones, if not exceptional. On the day we visited, about a month ago, with 30 French garden owners, this is what we saw: a garden on the verge of disappearance.

One valiant gardener pushed a lawnmower through the high grass in a heroic attempt to beat back the mounting destruction but to meet this effort with the right manpower and materials one would have to spend an enormous amount of money. The city of Spello doesn't have it, apparently, or of they do then it's been allocated elsewhere. I hate to end this post on a sad note, and so I won't. There is great beauty here even in the garden's decay, wouldn't you say?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Monsters in the Garden?


The charming village of Bomarzo, just north of Viterbo, looks over "The Park of Monsters," a sculpture garden created by the architect Pirro Ligorio, who completed the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Rome after the death of Michelangelo and built Villa d'Este in Tivoli. Prince Pier Francesco Orsini (1523-1585), called Vicino, commissioned the project to help mend his broken heart broken after the death of is wife Giulia Farnese (+1560).

The entry gate seems like a modern day recreated fantasy and yet it's authentic. The park was created in 1552 as "Villa of Wonders" to be the only one of it's kind in the world. Over the years it had fallen into disrepair till 1954 when it was bought by Giovanni Bettini who with loving care brought the garden back to life.

In the "Villa of Wonders" there is a "posthumous" Temple. It was build about 20 years later to honor the memory of Vicino Orsini's second wife. The statue in the foreground is of Proserpina, who stands with open arms and a sweet juvenile face.

There's an oddly exotic feeling to the place. I took this picture of a side gate because it brought to mind a gate I had seen in Iran that had two pairs of fruit trees leading to it in just this way—the four trees above are Judas trees. I used the idea to embellish the Umbraculum at Villa Massei—you can see it here.

This is the classic ogre of stories told on dark stormy nights, the ogre who eats children: the big (human?) head with wide open eyes in a moment of loud screaming, not of terror but terrorizing.

One of the best pieces in the park is the armored elephant that Hannibal used to devastate the Roman legions: here it is carrying along the unconscious body of a legionnaire.

This is Ceres, the Goddess patron of Rome.

Neptune, and in his hands is a small dolphin. To the right is a big open mouthed dolphin. This scene held something of the atmosphere, for me, of the great Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia.

"The Leaning House," as it's called, is fun to enter. I'd never known how disorienting it can be to step into a room with a raked floor—there are lots of recent uses of this concept in new architecture, from Liebeskind to Zaha Hadid.

Finally, we have reached the Ninfeo with the three graces embracing.