Monday, November 13, 2017

Embracing Winter

It seemed appropriate to sit down with British food writer Nigel Slater's wonderful new book "The Christmas Chronicles" on a cold November day. The temperatures had finally dropped and we just turned back the clocks. The days are gradually drawing in as they make their steady march towards the winter's solstice and the holidays are right around the corner. Nigel Slater was exactly what I needed to complete the picture. He has mastered the fine art of cultivating coziness. Just listen to the opening lines and you will know what I mean:

"I loved the crackle of winter. The snap of dry twigs underfoot, boots crunching on frozen grass, a fire spitting in the hearth, ice thawing on the pond, the sound of unwrapping a Christmas present from its paper. The innate crispness of the season appeals to me, like newly fallen snow, frosted hedges, the first fresh page of a diary. Yes, there is softness in the cold months, too, the voluminous jumpers and woolly hats, the steam rising from soup served in a deep bowl, the light from a single candle and the much-loved scarf that would feel like a burden at any other time of the year."

Nigel Slater loves winter. I love it as well. In Los Angeles we have very different winters from the ones he grew up with in England. And very different winters from the ones I grew up with in New England. There's something nostalgic about his evocation of winter in this book that appeals to everyone I think. Even if you didn't lived through those winters they are the winters of our imagination. So many classic films like "A Wonderful Life" and books like "A Christmas Carol" draw us into their winter scenes. I will now have to add Nigel's new book to  my winter/holiday collection. Because it is so much more than a cookbook. Like some of my favorite authors, he paints the most delicious scenes of escaping into a cozy interior on a frigid day:

"You hang up your coat, tug off your boots and light the fire. You will probably put the kettle on or pour yourself a drink. Not so much as a way to get warm, more to welcome yourself home. Home means more to us in cold weather. Making ourselves comfortable is a duty. Making friends and family comfortable is an art. 
'Come in.' Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You'll be safe here, toasty and well fed. 'Come in.' They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear."

He writes of the foods of winter which he calls "The food of fairy tales":

"Gingerbread biscuits with icing like melting snow, steaming glasses of wine, savoury puddings of bread and cheese and a goose with golden skin and a puddle of apple sauce. There are stews of game birds with twigs of thyme and rosemary; fish soups the colour of rust and baked apples frothing at the brim. Winter is the time for marzipan-filled stollen, thick with powdered sugar, pork chops as thick as a plank, and rings of Cumberland sausage sweet with dates and bacon."

He captures some of our most beloved holiday traditions such as looking at Christmas windows at our favorite department store:

"To see Fortnum & Mason's Christmas windows is to step into the pages of a book of fairy tales. Each year they glisten and sparkle, like the frost on a topiary garden, a scene of wonder and delight. The designs are cluttered in the loveliest sense, like looking into a kaleidoscope."

His chapters have the most delicious titles. Here are just a few:

Panettone, a love story
A Christmas list and a fig tart
Frost fairs and braised brisket
A tale of two polentas
Decorating the tree and a lamb roast
The prospect of soup

And we can't forget the recipes. Don't these sound delicious?

Pork Chops, spinach polenta; Apricot and tomato chutney; Bread pudding with ham, Comte and Tallegio; Orange and poppy seed stollen; Banana cardamom cake; Dark chocolate spice cake; Mulled wine

If you are looking for a book to help you get in the holiday spirit look no further than Nigel Slater's "The Christmas Chronicles." Filled with recipes, fables and quick fireside suppers, it will be your trusty companion from November to February. It is filled with so many good ideas for how to make our homes a cozy and welcoming place for the holidays. Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reading and other Fall Pleasures

I am very happy to say hello to November. Fall has officially arrived in Los Angeles and what a relief it is. Last week we were in deep, deep summertime heat. The temperatures hovered in the eighties throughout most of October and for several days even in the hundreds. Finally the heat wave has broken and we are enjoying some cool weather. Autumn has arrived!

For me fall is the cozy season. It's all about cooking, nesting, having friends over, making the first fire of the season, and getting ready for the holidays. It is my favorite time of the year. I would also add reading as one of my favorite activities when the weather gets cooler. I tend to read more ambitious books at this time of year, often selecting a classic which I can sink into on a chilly afternoon.

Right I am rereading "The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton. This book still takes my breath away. Edith Wharton was a superb writer, story teller, and observer of society. This book is definitely one of her masterpieces and an excellent example of literary fiction, an interesting category that has been on my mind lately. I recently went to a Writing Retreat in Italy (an amazing experience!) and we discussed the difference between literary and commercial fiction. Here is what I learned: in literary fiction character comes before plot, the prose is rich and finely crafted with line by line brilliance, and reading is a deeper experience, one in which the novel's events say something about what it means to be human and what it takes to get by in this world. "The House of Mirth" covers all those bases. Commercial fiction is much more about plot. It is fast-paced, page-turning, and offers instant gratification. I wondered which recent books fall into the literary fiction category? I think the books of Ian McKewan, such as "The Children Act" and "Atonement," would count as literary fiction. I also thought "The Essex Serpent" by Sarah Perry would qualify as such.

And maybe the book I just finished -- "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman. I read it on the flight home from Rome to Los Angeles. I was riveted and couldn't put it down. I'm not sure how to categorize this book except to say it is one of the freshest and most original voices I have read in a long time.

That voice belongs to Eleanor Oliphant, the main character, who may be the loneliest woman in all of literature. She has no friends or family and goes for entire weekends without speaking to a soul. When we first meet her she is leading a very solitary life. She goes to work each day and talks to no one except out of necessity. There is no water cooler chitchat for Eleanor. She goes home each night, eats her dinner, and drinks enough vodka to knock herself out. She wakes up and does the same thing all over again the next day. She is very bright and inadvertently funny. Because she is isolated from most people and out of touch with what they get up to she makes comments about cultural norms and customs that are very humorous. She lives alone and is occasionally visited by a social worker who wants to know how she is doing. Eleanor tells her she is completely fine but even the social worker knows this isn't true. For one thing, one half of Eleanor's body is covered in scars. The reader knows it from the very first sentence of the book and the mystery we want to solve is why Eleanor is the way she is. Fortunately hope comes in the form of an unkempt but kind tech guy at work who takes an interest in Eleanor.

The story of how this successful debut novel came to be written is fascinating and very inspiring. Gail Honeyman, who is in her forties, wrote the novel while she worked at Glasgow University. She wrote it in bits and pieces whenever she wasn't at work. She entered it in a writing competition where it was discovered. Much to her surprise it ignited a bidding war on the eve of the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair. It sold to Harper Collins for a high six-figure sum and has subsequently been sold to 28 publishers around the world. Reese Witherspoon's production company bought the film rights. Gail Honeyman is still reeling from this fairy tale ending. It's the kind of story that gives aspiring writers hope!

I would love to know if you have read "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine."
Also, please share anything else you are reading and can recommend. The cozy season has arrived.
Happy Reading!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Memorial Garden for Princess Diana

Kensington Gardens

Hello! You may be wondering where I have been and I hope you will forgive me for a very long hiatus. The reason for my absence is some happy family news: a new granddaughter (I now have two!) and a daughter who just got engaged. It's been a busy and wonderful summer. Now that it's fall  I am back at my blog and thought the first post should be about Kensington Gardens. It seemed like a good time to write about my visit last May in light of all the films and articles about Princess Diana on the 20th-anniversary of her death.

Kensington Palace is where Diana lived from the time of her marriage to Prince Charles until her death in 1997. And those gates are where all the flowers were laid -- more than a million bouquets -- in the days following her death. It just so happened that the day we visited was extraordinarily beautiful, one of those gorgeous English days with the bluest sky and huge fluffy white clouds. Prior to this our weather had been gray and chilly. We were delighted to be out and about looking at gardens on such a stunning day.

Kensington Gardens is adjacent to Kensington Park which is where we started our walk. Everyone in London seemed to be out that day enjoying the lovely weather. The statue in the distance is of Queen Victoria who also lived at Kensington Palace. We walked through these beautiful grounds and felt invigorated by the gorgeous sky and green parkland.

The historic sunken garden at Kensington Gardens is deservedly famous. The beds of flowers glimpsed through eye-catching arches cut out of the hedges are a treat to see. It's truly such a serene and inspiring place. And this year a white garden was planted in honor of Princess Diana. It closes at the end of this month and I am so happy to have made it to London in time to see this beautiful and moving tribute to Diana.

The gardeners planted white flowers and foliage including roses, scented narcissi and a carpet of forget-me-nots around the existing sunken garden.

They recalled that she was particularly fond of the sunken garden and would often come by to chat with them and admire the changing floral displays.

The white flowers really stood out in this beautiful setting and reminded me of the beauty and elegance of Princess Diana.

Looking through one of the hedged arches lining the perimeter

I enjoyed reading the articles and watching the documentaries about Princess Diana that came out last month. I also watched the film "The Queen" starring Helen Mirren which was about Diana's death and the response or lack of response by the Royal Family. I learned that she was complicated and flawed, filled with insecurity and anxiety, but that's what made her so relatable and real. She was the "people's princess" and is credited with modernizing the monarchy. One thing that was undeniable: she had star power. She was beautiful, photogenic and glamorous. I admired the way she used her celebrity to champion causes that benefited the marginalized, such as people suffering from aids in the early years. I'll never forget the photo of her holding hands with an aids patient and not wearing gloves. I think she would have loved the white garden planted in her honor at Kensington Palace. A garden by its very nature is ephemeral and the fact that it won't last forever made the seeing of it all the more special. Of all the memorials to Diana this may have been the most meaningful.

I would love to know if you got a chance to see this lovely tribute to Princess Diana!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage

The Moors above Haworth

Happy June! I hope you have been enjoying this beautiful month. I've been sorting through photos and souvenirs from my trip to England in May and have finally settled down to write a blog post about Haworth. Visiting Haworth where the Bronte Parsonage Museum is located has been a dream of mine for years. I have been reading the novels by the Bronte sisters since I was in my twenties and their lives became as interesting to me as their books. I wanted to see where they lived and wrote. There was such a romantic and tragic sensibility to it all: the parsonage with its adjoining graveyard where they lived, the wild and beautiful moors where they walked each day, and their creative and talented lives cut so tragically short. Finally my husband and I traveled up to Yorkshire in May and it was everything I'd hoped for and more. I learned so much while we were there.

The Parsonage

Walking through these doors was a moving experience. This is the home of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, authors of some of the most beloved books in the English language. In 1820 their father Patrick Bronte was appointed Curate of Haworth Church and came to live here with his wife Maria and six children. Within eighteen months his wife died and her sister Elizabeth moved into the Parsonage to help with the running of the household. In 1825 the two eldest children Maria and Elizabeth also died after contracting tuberculosis while away at school. 

The Dining Room

This room is very special. It is where Charlotte, Emily and Anne did most of their writing. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were written here. The sisters would walk around the table every evening until about eleven o'clock, reading and discussing their writing plans and projects. After the deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte continued the nightly ritual and walked in solitude, unable to sleep before doing so.

Mr. Bronte's Study

Patrick Bronte carried out most of his parish business from this room. The magnifying glass on his desk is a reminder of his failing eyesight that happened in his later years. It was in this room that Charlotte first told him that she was a published author. When he traveled to Manchester for an eye operation, Charlotte went with him. It was when she was nursing him in Manchester that she began to write Jane Eyre

The Kitchen

I loved the kitchen scenes in "To Walk Invisible," the recent television dramatization of the lives of the Brontes, especially those with Emily taking out her frustration on the bread dough! As children the Brontes would gather around the kitchen fire to listen to their servant Tabby's dark tales of the Yorkshire moors. The sisters all helped out with the household chores as they got older and when their Aunt Branwell passed away in 1842, Emily took over as housekeeper, helping in the kitchen and baking bread.

Patrick Bronte's Bedroom

When Branwell's alcohol and opium addiction got to the point of serious damage to himself, Patrick insisted that Branwell share this room so he could watch over his son. It was in this room that Branwell died at age 31.

The Haworth Church where Patrick Bronte preached every Sunday

Interior of the church

Charlotte and Emily are buried in a family vault to the right of the altar marked by this brass plaque

The moors just outside of the Parsonage

Another view

Haworth's steep Main Street with a view of the moors

Penistone Hill Country Park, close to Haworth 

The stone walls that are woven throughout the moors were assembled by hand with no mortar and have lasted for centuries.

If you are a fan of the Bronte sisters I highly recommend a visit to Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage. It will give you such a strong sense of the influences on their writing. Although there's never a bad time to visit as there is always such great programming at the Parsonage, now is an especially good time as they are currently celebrating the bicentenary year of Branwell Bronte, the troubled brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. There is a very interesting exhibition about him curated by the poet Simon Armitage called "Mansions in the Sky." It's an exploration of Branwell's personality through his writings, drawings, and possessions. I also enjoyed seeing the recreation of Branwell's art studio -- he was an aspiring artist -- within the Parsonage. Another fabulous exhibition that we saw was the costumes from the television production "To Walk Invisible." They are beautiful and looked very authentic displayed in the historic setting of the Parsonage.

During the next three years the Bronte Parsonage will also be celebrating the bicentenary anniversaries of both Emily and Anne. This should be a great time to visit. The town of Haworth has remained much the same as it looked when the family lived there and it is easy to imagine the sisters walking through town to shop or out roaming the moors. I can't think of a more evocative landscape for understanding a writer than this remote little village in Yorkshire and its beautiful surrounding countryside.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Adventures in Yorkshire

We just got back from a wonderful trip to London and Yorkshire. After a week in London our plan was to visit Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived. The question was: where should we stay? I had been told that York was a wonderful destination and only about an hour from Haworth. Once I began reading up on York I discovered so many interesting things. For example, did you know that York was once the capital of England? And that it is the home to the biggest Gothic cathedral in all of Northern Europe, the York Minster? I learned so much on this trip. But, back to the issue of where to stay. I did a little research and discovered what looked to be a lovely country house hotel just outside the city of York called Middlethorpe Hall. It is a Queen Anne country house that was built by Thomas Barlow in the early 18th-century and lived in by his descendants for many years. One of its most famous residents was the letter-writer and traveler Lady Mary Worley Montagu who rented it in 1713. Eventually the house fell into disrepair and was carefully restored in 1980 and turned into a beautiful hotel. I knew it was on a large piece of land but nowhere did I learn about its gorgeous gardens. Here is what we discovered at Middlethorpe Hall on our very first day. And by the way, don't you think the house itself has a sort of a Jane Eyre look about it? To me it looked like the Thornfield Hall of my imagination. Mr. Rochester or Mrs. Fairfax could have easily opened up that front door!

We entered the foyer and were very happy with what we saw. This is a very authentic and old-fashioned country-house hotel. Inviting and comfortable, it made us feel if we had traveled back in time. Our room was lovely and I wish I had pictures. But to give you a feeling of the authenticity of the building, our bedroom floor was on a slant and creaked like a thunderclap every time we walked on it. Late at night on the way to the bathroom it was easy to imagine ghosts. I loved the ambiance here and it was a great beginning to our Bronte journey. We checked in and quickly unpacked as we wanted to explore.

 There were some very beautiful public rooms

 I could imagine having tea here later

 But our first stop was the terrace at the back of the house where we were told we could get a cocktail

We walked out the back door and sat at one of these little table and had a glass of wine. We noticed that there seemed to be a garden at the end of the terrace. And so we took a walk.

We were greeted by this beautiful tree and noticed a pathway leading to a garden

We followed the path

The borders were lush and beautiful

And there it was -- a series of garden rooms filled with herbaceous borders, fruit trees, pathways, enclosures, long vistas, doorways, hedging, brick walls, and espaliered trees. There was also an 18th-century dovecote. This garden was enchanting and we were the only ones in it! 

There was beautiful hedging and inviting benches

Enticing vistas

Dramatic entrances


Garden doors

With views of more enticing gardens

Espaliered trees

The tulips were gorgeous

As were the alliums

There were arbors

And brick walls

We were happy to have made it in time to see the wisteria

The geometric shapes and symmetry were very inspiring

We followed along until we reached this park-like expanse which led us to the big lawn at the back of the house

Where we discovered the "ha-ha," a concealed ditch which allows views across the south lawn

At this point it was time to change for dinner at the hotel. The wood-paneled dining room was elegant and the food was delicious. We had three wonderful nights at Middlethorpe Hall. Maybe because of its proximity to Bronte Country, staying at Middlethorpe Hall felt a bit like living inside a Victorian novel. The combination of history, beauty, and atmosphere made it the perfect place to stay on our journey to visit the Brontes.

Next up: Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage