Friday, December 30, 2011

Delicacies of Lucca


The Italian food shop is widely imitated. You can find things that look vaguely like this in many parts of the world. But this is the genuine article. That's Roberto Isola himself in a blur of action on this Friday before New Year's Eve when everybody's getting in the mood to ring in the new in the easiest most delicious way possible. That giant cheese is Italian, aged in berries from the wood.

He's a cheese lover and his cheese comes from everywhere—he even sells Stilton and English Cheddar; here in Lucca we're all used to nothing but the best, quality and variety.

This interesting-looking Dutch woman, carrying a silver-handled stick, seemed to know the lay of the land.

Grains and beans are displayed in bulk along with locally ground flours.

In his kitchen Roberto, who gets up a four in the morning, prepares the Lucchese "Tordelli," and such festive touches for New Year's Eve as insalata Russa.

I don't eat meat, but I can admire a well packaged product.

Canditi and the great local sweet bread with anis called buccellato.

There's everything you need for an intimate, celebratory evening at home, but if you don't see it out it's there in back somewhere beside the caviar.

It's said that during the war, when all of Europe was starving, Lucca was eating as if nothing had happened. It wasn't necessarily about being able to afford to eat, it was about will and creativity.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

On Christmas Day


As we're off to Villa Orlando for a traditional Christmas lunch with our dear friends the Marchesa Luisella and Marchese Ludovico Orlando Gavotti ...

The Villa Orlando, just one of dozens of such houses here in the hills of Lucca, was originally built in 1700 by the Orsucci family. Having been enlarged in the mid to late eighteenth century, it took its present shape in 1781. The villa remained the property of the Orsuccis until 1836, when it was bought by Carolina Murat Bonaparte, the Queen of Naples. In 1840 the house passed to Baron Costantino Tossizza, then later to Pietro Zanardi. In 1899 it passed to the Orlando family, who own the villa today. History is everywhere here, and the interior is a splendid example of a glory long forgotten now lovingly preserved.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Seaside Winter Lunch


The winter Mediterranean has its charms, even in out of the way places like Marina di Pisa, a small and strangely forgotten little town at the mouth of the Arno river. The distant views are of the port of Livorno and here, in stormy weather, the open sea rips into the coastline with a harsh relentlessness. But things are quiet today under a dark gathering of clouds—it's a nice day for a lunch in a cosy and warm place like Foresta.

There's nothing extraordinarily stylish about it, in fact an odd old dowdiness prevails. But the view of the sea and the wonderful food are enough to bring us back often.

Such as this antipasto of stoccafisso alla Livornese.

Fried dough is a Sunday treat—it's like the days when mama was still in the kitchen from morning till night.

We ran into an old friend there, a Lucca wine producer, and he recommended this great Riesling fron the Italian Val Venosta.

An antipasto of mini sandwiches: scampi, salt cod and scallops.

A mixed seafood pasta.

Sea bream with local winter artichokes—sorry I ate most of it before I remembered to snap a picture.

And mama made these delicious almond Christmas cookies just before we arrived, how thoughtful!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Aphorisms for Christmas II


(All material in both this and the previous post is of my authorship)

As human beings go we're really all the same, it's just that some of us are a little dumpier than others.

Why colonize Mars when we have all the rogue states we need right here on Earth?

Navigable shallows are far more beckoning than uncharted depths.

Soon as you're willing to accept your current old age you're already older still.

Money's fun so long as it has nothing to do with economics.

"What am I doing back, I'd never had it so good!" —Neil Armstrong, July 1969.

Why put fools to shame when they're so good at doing it to themselves.

To every course of action there are positives and negatives, it's just that you have to look a lot harder for the former.

Sitting on the fence would be an easy way to avoid making decisions if it weren't for the internal injuries.

Friends are of absolute necessity, till they ask to borrow books.

Practice guarantees a very low return on the investment.

Ah, for the days when people took such pride in their work that even crime was committed in black tie.

You know you've had a lousy vacation when you need to rest for a week when you get home.

People who bring a lot to the table tend to eat more than everybody else.

When I was young I wanted all my friends to be brilliant and witty, but now that I'm old it's enough that their furniture is comfortable.

Consistency is the last refuge of a flip-flopper.

Golf is the game for people whose minds and bodies function with the internal mechanism of a cuckoo clock.

If you really want to get something done make sure your heart isn't in it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Christmas Cracker


Clothes would do a lot for us if we weren't the only ones who took any notice.

Shoes might not make the man but his bare feet will ruin him.

The pleasures of travel are far too widely enjoyed.

Yesterday's gone till today rubs your nose in it.

Getting snubbed tends to launch you on a whirlwind social tour.

Those who believe that the world owes them a living need to seriously restructure their debts.

When you find yourself saying, "I can't quite put my finger on it," chances are there's nothing there.

There might once have been an art of conversation but even then it was considered a solitary act.

If I had a thousand lives to live perhaps one day I'd get it right.

Luxury's like a recreational drug, you're never quite sure if it's really come on.

De gustibus non disputandum est—till the object in question has left the room.

That which makes the world go round will one day bring it to a screeching halt.

Heaven on earth is great but you have to go through hell to get there.

Condemning our consumerist society is fine if you're a Tillandsia aeranthos (airplant).

Punctuality is the virtue of those who have very few appointments.

The successful are a bit like lottery winners though often less deserving.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From My Blog Roll: The Year's Best Posts

Reggie Darling puts us all in our place in his inimitable Life-illustrated fashion with his post, Reggie's Top Ten (Little) Rules for Keeping It Together. Who of us doesn't need a shaking-up now and then? And from our own master of decorum and civility at that! This is the best of Reggie's lighthearted and thoroughly original work. Funny and stylish as any good blog post ought to be this one might even give us pause—did I really go around all day last Saturday unshaven?

A Country Farmhouse is one of the prettiest blogs there is, and this post, called Simple Pleasures, is pure elegance. Just a few luscious looking kiwis, some cut in half, some not: the browns, the golds, and that stunning mint acid green. These people know how to shoot pictures and they succeed time and time again in description of an enviable family life of light and happiness and beauty in the Pacific Northwest.

Lindaraxa could keep us eating well for the rest of our lives with all the fine recipes she sends our way—my favorite people are cooks; they offer up so much love, and it never ends at the edge of the plate. But in this handsomely illustrated post, called 20 Easy Tips for Slimming down and Eating Well, with the help of painter Fernando Botero, we get a few level-headed suggestions for keeping off those excess pounds. It's not science, nor the work of a professional nutritionist, it's just someone smart who cares in your life, and while I could never follow some of these rules in a million years (I live in Italy after all) I give them credit for being sensible and wise.

Architect Design is a treasure trove of fine and majestic buildings. The White House: East Wing was posted early in the new year and deserves another viewing now as Christmastime approaches. I've never toured the White House but this visit is almost as good: we get a look at its sumptuous Christmas decorations through the observing eyes of our blogger host. Obviously the White House has a pretty good budget for lights and ribbons and green but the talent involved is even more impressive. We should all be proud of the White House and the fine condition it's in thanks to a team of dedicated historians/conservationists and hard working staff. Maybe this year Architect Design will take us there to a state dinner!

The Downeast Dilettante strikes a certain special cord for me as I was born in Maine—though I only spent summers there after the fact. There are a number of blogs that hit my nostalgia button with images and stories about New England, one of the most beautiful parts of the United States, but this one explores the all-too-often lost grandeur of it all. This Garden was made in 1901 and Named Weld is one of Downeast Dilettante's best. Not a totally happy story (it ends with the demise of a lavish Massachusetts estate), the human interest of exceptional characters along with vivid illustrations make it a compelling read.

The Style Saloniste gets the attention of anyone who thinks about design and beauty, and its current offering is one of the best examples of what this blog offers. Dodie Rosekrans Treasures Go Under the Hammer is a fantastic tribute to, and post about, a unique American socialite, known here in Italy for her glamorous apartment in Venice, where for many years hers was the invitation to get. In this post Diane Dorrans Saeks offers up some wonderful photographs, including the portrait you see above, taken from an article Saeks did for C Magazine. It's an exciting auction—I'd love to have a piece from the collection!

The Corinthian Column is like a mystery book, or a fragment of a story you're not entitled to know the details of—or is it that you're meant to know only the details? It's a magical life shown here, of esthetics, of family history, of food and travel, of colliding worlds in broad experience. The Tea in China is one of dozens of very fine posts out of this blog in recent months but it appeals to me because I'm fascinated by China Trade paintings as well. The one above was sold at auction in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, my part of the world. I'm a bit envious of those who live in places that permit paintings like this to be hung—you can get away with it in Portsmouth, on the China trade route, or in a smart flat in Bangkok where this blog's creator lives. And so we go on reading, as bits and pieces of information fall gently into place in this curious puzzle of a life in the process of being very well-lived.

Joseph The Butler Recommends ... is another blog that's going to keep us on our toes. In this recent post on table settings he takes on Martha Steward for her sloppy inconsistencies as to where the knives and forks are supposed to go. I have to say the piece is just as funny as it is fussy. Notice, for instance, that the desert fork is pointing the wrong way in the above photo—the tines should be pointing right! Those who care about such things are in ever decreasing numbers but Martha still sells books, doesn't she? And Joseph has his readers, loyal and ever more mindful! (I can't forgive Martha for having potted plants on the dining table though.)

Contessa Nally is at the right place at the right time. A self-described "paparazza," she takes the best people pictures of anybody I know. This is an "in case you missed it" kind of blog, and its great appeal, in part, is the fact that most of us have missed it. Her wonderful series in early summer of the Venice Biennale is a tour of new art, events, rare moments, parties and most of all glamor. This post, one of many, Venice Biennale: Collateral Events - Big Bambu, gives us a look at the stuff this great art exhibit is made of. Nothing goes unnoticed, to Nally, such is her joie de vivre, but I might have watched that water taxi go by without having it occur to me for a minute that that was Courtney Love and Jefferson Hack putt-putting past—Courtney who?

Sunday, December 4, 2011



I wonder how many panettoni get produced for Christmas in Italy. They're everywhere you look, in every shop and supermarket, in every bakery and bar. I found this one, with a very original brown and red treatment, at Eataly in Asti, Piemonte

The packaging is perhaps more intriguing than the contents—though I can't imagine a Christmas here without the taste of it on Christmas day. This one looks like it could have been designed by Giorgio Armani.

But doesn't red mean Christmas?

Signal orange and yellow is very festive, isn't it? But does it communicate Christmas to you?

This one is made with corn flour, and so it's yellow.

Here it is as a fine, very non-commercial, gift, wrapped in gold.

A chic one, you'd have to say! With cacao! The panettone is a great custom—it could only have been invented in Italy! If you were given a choice, as I was, that day walking around Asti, which pannetone would you have bought as a gift to your family and friends?