Ceramicist Alana Wilson

Interview by Eric Hsu

Photography by Phillip Huynh

BI6B5199HR_RS

** Her exhibit “T:  Exploration & Experience of the Teabowl”- with Romy Northover (pictures featured here) goes until  November 26 at FLOATING MOUNTAIN 239 W72nd St, New York NY 10023. Pieces are available for purchase and can be viewed at https://www.floating-mountain.com


`                    Photo Credit: Alana Wilson

Swimming brings one’s body with the water’s buoyancy, yet the process of molding and shaping clay is an anchoring force with hands. Where do you see the cross dialogue between the two activities?

Both are very meditative, predominantly done in solitude and combine physical movement and awareness of the body with a required mental acuity to work through a repetitive process. Both connect with a natural element – earth and water – which I find quite calming and humanly intrinsic. Over time, the wiring between brain and body becomes so ingrained that you can let your mind wander whilst the body is in automatic mode of a learnt technique. Both activities require a sense of technique, which is similarly soft, efficient, streamlined, responsive to the least amount of touch, and both techniques rely on a sense of flow and refining the surface resistance of the body against the elements.


 

BI6B5206HR_RZ

Your work belies the exacting but unpredictable process of overlaying different substances and glazing. What do you find fascinating about the alchemy?

There are endless parallels between the ceramic surfaces and surfaces and textures that exist in nature. Of course, ceramic materials all exist and are derived from natural resources but the process of firing results in a more compacted environment with the kiln’s heat and the firing speed. Scientifically, all of these ceramic results exist somewhere in nature that have occurred through varying means and all natural surfaces and materials will depict a chemical story of creation and destruction, as do the ceramic pieces.

As a child I would get lost in observing rock pools full of geological and marine life, collecting seashells and interesting rocks to study. This childhood fixation has informed my interest in the minute details of elemental decay and natural observation. Over time I have come to recognize stronger analogies between the natural destructive process and environments comparative to those in the medium of ceramics.

Within the ceramic process there are numerous aspects left to chance and susceptible to variation. Different materials will have specific reactions within the firing – how it transforms through heat exposure, how fast it is heated, its melting point, vaporisation point, oxygen content in the material and the atmosphere and its reaction with the other glaze ingredients it is mixed with.


 

 

BI6B5174HR_RZ

In its elemental form, the vessel projects functionality that people have difficulty divorcing when it comes to appreciating ceramics as an art equal to painting or sculpture. How do you hope to have someone see your piece beyond its basic purpose?

I used to look at this viewpoint as a hindrance, always trying to prove something with the vessel. There is an inherent conditioning when dealing with the vessel throughout anthropological, art, and social history. Functionality not only alludes to a use but also to a relationship to the human body and human life. I now embrace the steadfast connotative functionality of my work and prefer it over purely conceptual art (in terms of what I create myself, not necessarily as to what interests me as a viewer).

Having a pre-conditioned utilitarian context allows a certain scale of intimacy for the works to intersect the viewer’s perceptual / experiential process on a different level. Sociologically the viewer forms some sense of connection to it and hold it in a perceptual realm relative to their everyday life as opposed to a more conceptual work, in which they may feel separate from in terms of anthropological connection and conceptual understanding.

BI6B5398HR_RZ

 

 

The difficult concept to divorce from the vessel is its ability to hold something, therefore an empty vessel is often perceived as incomplete. I seek to highlight the emptiness and twist the conception to depict the potential to be filled, within which there are various possibilities – both physical and conceptual ‘fillers’. The depiction of the unused or empty vessel allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on their individual conditioning. In a sense this conditioning (towards an utilitarian object such as a vessel) is on a different level to the conditioning to comprehend conceptual or abstract art.

BI6B5351LR

 

Throughout this consistent questioning within my own work, I have looked at and questioned other forms of art, architecture, design etc and its relativity to humankind. I am interested in its ability to intersect with the everyday life of the everyday person, to not exist only in the vacuum of a white box gallery or as a material commodity, financial investment, or interior decoration. Within my work I aim to honor the history of the vessel and the different historical values – emotional, cultural / historical, technical, conceptual – that all correlate to the final result.

BI6B5388HR_LR

There is a consistent duality of logic vs reason, cultural vs individual; but in the sense of attempting to draw attention to the importance of humanity and humankind there is the critical requirement for communication, which is community. The viewer’s perception is a moment in time, yet can be long-lasting in terms of their recollection of reality and how it affects them. The majority of viewers would not be aware of their own perceptual process to this extent but I find the relationship between functionality, physicality, conceptual understanding and conditioning an extremely interesting area to observe and study in relation to my work, art and life in general.


Pot Plant, which was curated by John Tebbs for the Garden Edit, and Lilies of Forgiveness, placed your work in relation to ephemeral plant material. Did either exhibits re-center the focus on how florists utilize your ceramics?

As discussed in the above answer, I primarily look for highlighting an emptiness and the potential of completion based on societal conditioning towards and empty vessel. However, I love working with ephemeral plant material as it truly represents natural beauty and its decay, and takes away that sense of ownership or forever-ness that so many people crave. These ideas are constantly embedded within my work, so with the right people who appreciate these ideas I am always keen to collaborate. John Tebbs from The Garden Edit, Simone Gooch of Fjura, and Alia & Ezra from Regime des Fleurs all create beautiful work, utilizing nature as creator and transcending nature as decoration or pure product.


 BI6B5311HR_RZ

There is an old Chinese saying ‘滴水穿石’ which translates to ‘dripping water eats away the stone’. It alludes well to how your pieces bear the corrosive effect of water almost to the point of close disintegration. Is it a mediation on the transience of humankind and material goods?

Absolutely. More so an exploration of the innate impermanence of everything and attempting to break down the societal attachment to completed or beautiful things; to encourage an acceptance of the process of continuous transformation and inevitable decay, in all things – physical and otherwise.


The marine environment is unforgiving to terrestrial plant life, but what would be an Alana Wilson ceramic personified as a plant or garden look like? 

This is an interesting question, and each ceramic piece has its own identity in a way … possibly a rockpool or reef, could that be classified as a garden?


Thank you Alana for the interview!

“You can cut all the flowers but…”

Prunus Buds LQ

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” ― Pablo Neruda

Foreign Gardeners: Gabriella, from Hungary to England


An excellent designer and passionate plants-person, meeting Gabi is a memory that remains clear in my mind. Arriving at Great Dixter for the first time from the U.S., in the darkness of night during a horrible downpour, was an experience. By the time I made it down the long front path to the huge ominous house, with the crooked porch in front of me, I was sopping wet.  After some heavy knocking, Gabi opened the huge wooden front door, greeting me warmly. Once inside the house, it was all another world to me, like stepping back in time.  Gabi led me to a roaring fire in the Solar upstairs and brought out a tray of delicious homemade soup and tea. As I ate and warmed up, adjusting to the surroundings, Gabi could see and understand what was going on in my mind, the excitement of it all, since she too had been a newbie at Dixter once too. It was a surreal experience that night and from that wonderful moment on we have remained friends. – James


 

CurrentWork-C4 Hi, Gabi! That story always makes me smile, thank you again for your kindness that night.  As the first in the Foreign Gardeners series, can you tell others what country you were born and where you decided to move to?

Hello, I am Gabriella Nemeth and I am from Hungary and moved to the United Kingdom.

How long have you been living in the U.K. now?

I will be living in the U.K. ten years now this March.

GabiHungary6

Describe to us the beauty of the landscape in Hungary, your homeland, and your memories from your time there.

I was born on the Great Hungarian Plains. The landscape is flat. Flatter than anyone can imagine. The open land, the sand which moves around, scorching summers and extremely cold winters and very poor soil makes it difficult to grow anything. But the natural habitat, the most western edge of the Russian Steppes creates the most unique, colorful ever-changing carpet in the land.

I loved wandering through these meadows searching  beauty which hid in the details of Verbascum flowers or the delicacy of the bloom of Stipa borysthenica. I marveled at the wonder of how a small lichen creates a growing surface for moss, later a sedum, then a grass, which later gets replaced by perennials and later the beautiful silver poplars; the ongoing succession of plants.

I really miss walking barefoot in the warm sand in summertime, and catching the scent of flowering Robinia pseudoacacia and Asclepias syriaca.

GabiHungary2
memories of farm life in Hungary

When did you decide to make this change and why did you move to the UK?

I have studied Landscape Architecture in Hungary and after finishing University with a Masters in 2005.  I was made to be unemployed and did odd jobs for nearly 2 years due to my home country’s economic and social situation.  At the same time, the lack of encouragement for young professionals to express themselves,  the lack of appropriate jobs and the suppression of women who have a desire to build a career,  resulted in a desperate move to find my own path.  For years I was extremely keen to find a job in garden design or landscape architecture  but  my interest had been diverted more to the importance of plants and understanding their life cycle, appearance, texture, colour,  being the most important building elements of garden design.  I finally realized I wanted to learn more about succession planting and the proper and artistic use of these elements in the garden.

GabiHungary5
the mix of the Hungarian landcape
GabiHungary7_Stipaborystenica
Stipa borysthenica

In the summer of 2006, I received a lovely gift from my best friend in Hungary( who sadly passed away in 2012, aged 33, due to cancer).  She visited the UK during that summer and brought me back an copy of Gardens Illustrated magazine.  I read an article about a nursery called Dove Cottage Nursery and I picked up the courage to write a letter, to ask them about a few weeks of training.  They were so kind and helpful and sent me a response very promptly.  They couldn’t take me on but they suggested to contact Great Dixter and Fergus Garret.  It was November 2006 when I sent out my email to Fergus and for my biggest surprise and shock he replied within 2 weeks and asked me when would I like to come and how long I would like to stay.  This email was the key for my future!  I decided to immediately leave my part time librarian job and fly out in March 2007 for a 3 month apprenticeship.   Shortly after my arrival I felt that this is the place and country where I was called to.  A few weeks before my finish date I asked Fergus if there would be a job a for me in the future since William, the vegetable gardener, was leaving and they would have a vacancy, which I was then offered.  I accepted it but on the result of this I had to make some very hard life changing steps in my private life.  It was the most difficult and the same time the easiest decision to make.  It has taken years to settle all the waves I  stirred up but it was worth it.

Dixter1

Quiet mornings in the vegetable garden at Great Dixter


CurrentWork_C1
Private client work

Can you explain to us a bit about your current job?

In 2010 I  moved on from Great Dixter with a plan to find a part time gardener job and concentrate on garden design and build up my own clientele in garden maintenance.  Since 2012 I have gone fully independent and became a freelancing professional gardener, a designer with a variety of jobs in the UK and abroad, including gardening advisory and floristry.

I had to go through a though learning curve over the last 3 years.  I am a freelance head gardener at 2 private homes in two different counties in the UK,  supervising independent contractors to complete all the tasks needed in the highly maintained gardens and am also responsible, personally,  for the border maintenance, vegetable gardens, lawn care etc.

I have a very versatile job, which keeps me highly occupied, since I have a very long commute between my jobs which means a lot of driving time beyond working hours.  I definitely haven’t got a 9 to 5 job but I have a lot of variety, a lot responsibility and lot of reward from my gardens as a result of long working hours and hard work.

CurrentWork-C3How did you happen to find your current job?

Both of my clients found me,  which is very surprising,  after all the job applications I sent out and interviews I attended.  My client in Wiltshire has been the best of all my career, I was recommended to them by their garden designer and I have been working for them for more than 4 years.  A record for  staying in the same job for so long, but it proves that it takes time to find the right kind of people to work for and the right kind of garden which needs me…

The other clients, in Berkshire, found me through an agency I was registered with.  I have been working for them 2 years now.  An interview with prosecco and prosciutto resulted in a great working relationship, together building a fantastic garden.

Dixter2

Would you say there are benefits to being a gardener living abroad?

Yes, I am living in heaven for any gardener/horticulturist. The UK is the place where everyone is so passionate about their green places, you can grow almost anything from all over the world and my job is the most appreciated here in the UK.

As a foreigner living abroad it’s not always easy at times. What, if any, have been some difficulties you’ve encountered during you time living in the UK? What have some of the struggles been?

Some of the struggles…a lot really…it’s part of getting stronger and resilient and succeeding.

In general, when I moved to the UK I didn’t have a car but from my first salary I bought a bicycle. Great Dixter is at least 10 miles from the nearest town and the public transport can be unreliable and scarce.  I needed to get to places.  I soon realized everyone uses cars to get around and has little respect and attention for a cyclist.  Later when I got a car I encountered the overcrowded motorways and traffic jams which now my daily experience.  So bad public transport services, little respect for environmentally friendly ways of getting around and too many cars.

Loneliness, lack of family or old friends support, new language, living financially on the edge and taking very big risks all alone,the physical challenge of my job, being in pain and being soaked in the rain for days in and out.  The language and cultural differences were hard the first few years.  I found it very hard to realize that it’s much easier to make friends with people from abroad than with the locals…it is still an ongoing difficulty.  I have more friends abroad who I keep in touch more frequently than with people from Britain.

Doing very insignificant jobs for years to finally make a tiny step up, being turned down from jobs many times, getting a job which didn’t suit me and leaving it, but because of the financial dependency I had to carry on working, sometimes with people who humiliated me. I had to learn that people like to take advantage of others, especially those in vulnerable positions. I definitely have been used over the years,  as result of the hard working Central European attitude.   I learned how to and how not to do things, manage staff, etc… But all this made me very strong and I know it was worth it.  And the rain is something which takes time to get used to, especially when one comes from a country where life stops at the first rain drop.

Favourite English Landscape_Dorset Coast
just one view of the many beautiful and diverse landscapes of England

On the flip side, there must also be some surprising change that you have welcomed and enjoyed. What would those be?

I think the love of plants and gardens was the best surprise.   I love the climate regardless of it’s raining or not.   I also love the countryside and the coast which is on a sunny day is unbeatable in beauty.

Mostly I have found so invigorating is the encouragement I get from the people to pursue my dream and career, to follow my heart and be myself, do my dream job and live my dream life.   Fantastic surprise after years of suppression.

Currentwork_A2

Moving to a new place can have its challenges,  what preparations did you take to prepare yourself for this move from Hungary to the UK?

I was not aware of it but I have spent a lot of time and effort and money on learning English in high school…it was more like a pride thing…I was the only one when we started at high school at age 12. I had to write an introductory test which I failed with scoring 0 points, that I couldn’t stand and instead of despairing I took up extra language lessons and within a year I was in the advance class! So, yes it was all worth it…

Also my first cash in hand jobs in Hungary were garden maintenance for a Greek-English family and a bunch of Americans, though I didnt know it was the prep for the future.

 What advice would you give to others who are going to be making the same sort of life changes similar to your situation?

Seek and knock on the doors, be brave, take risks, try, don’t give up, try again and again…and again… Wait, work hard and you will succeed.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice for theses changes, what would  you want to tell yourself?

I think I would have told myself to be more patient with certain things but on the other hand don’t put up with bad employers, situations, circumstance as long as I did but it’s easy to be wise, the challenges of the moment always dictates your acts more than wisdom.

Mainly I would encourage my younger self to discuss and communicate more. I think that helps the most to find yourself out, to find yourself, your dream job and life.

Having lived in the UK for a while now, tell us some of the greater memories you have made so far…

I think taking off the ground in Hungary with the plane in March 2007, it felt like being pulled out from a sticky mud hole which almost swallowed me up…  Driving up to Great Dixter first time which was surrounded with spring flowers and occupying my room with a 4 poster bed…yeah…unforgettable….unbelievable.  Meeting you Jimmy!  On that spooky windy November night!   Makes a smile on my face each time I think of it with all the trimmings of story of that day. And leaving Dixter, packing up my car and driving into the unknown future again. To 3 years ago the feeling of moving into my flat, which I rent, but it is only mine!  Walks in the countryside wherever I have been living over the last 8 years are  some of the most wonderful moments of my life in Britain.

Untitled-1
Rosa ‘Cecile Brunner’ & Rosa ‘Olivia’

 

Turning back to gardens, tell us your new favorite plant that you can now grow that you weren’t able to before?    

Compared to Hungary I’m so happy to be able to grow healthy old English roses and sweet peas, on the veg line artichokes and brassicas. All very traditional but still a special treat for me.

EnglishRose2
Rosa  rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed and for sharing your story with everyone.  If you would like to reach out to Gabriella, ask a question please do so by commenting below or see and know more about her work please click on the links provided below. Thank you Gabriella! – Plinth et al.


Website: Gabriella Gardens

Facebook: Gabriella Gardens 


Holiday Fruit Desserts: Pear Hazelnut Frangipane Galette

 

DSC_0291

 

Gorgeously sumptuous in the seasonal colors, the pear hazelnut frangipane galette will appeal to the eye and tastebud alike. Almond frangipane is often used for pears in pastries, but I sometimes find it too sweet (preferring a savory edge without being overwhelmingly sweet). Cue in hazelnuts, which give that nuttiness flavor complementary to pears. The pears are not poached prior to being baked therefore they will be crisp, a nice textural contrast with the pillowy hazelnut frangipane. An alternative would be to poach them whole and cut them fan-like as they appear in this galette. The galette dough recipe is a reliable and nearly foolproof one that Dorie Greenspan uses in Baking Chez Moi. I have used it several times with success – the pastry is buttery and flaky like pie dough. The pear hazelnut frangipane galette can be served warm or at room temperature. If you feel really decadent, you could add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  ~ Eric


 

Galette Dough (adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

Makes 1 galette crust

1 1/2 cups (204 grams) all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 stick (8 tablespoons; 4 ounces; 113 grams) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces (frozen butter is good here)

1/4 cup ice water

Place the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to mix thoroughly. Sprinkle cubes of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is incorporated into the flour. The texture initially will be somewhat like coarse cornmeal, and additional pulsing will  produce a mixture that has small flake-size pieces and some larger pea-size pieces. Add a bit of ice water and pulse, add some more, pulse and add until no more water is left. Pulse longer and stop momentarily to scrap the sides and bottom of the food processor bowl. Now work in longer pulses, stopping to scrape the sides and bottom of the food processor. In time, a dough that resembles feta cheese curds will result. Do not overpulse. but pulse enough that the wheel against the dough begins to slow down. Turn the dough out onto a work surface.

Shape the dough into a ball, flatten it into a disk and put it between two large pieces of parchment paper.  Roll the dough while it is cool into a circle approximately 12 inches in diameter. Cut a circle out of the dough (I used the removable tart tin base when you construct the galette).  You don’t want an overly thin dough, and it’s preferable to have a thick dough with some heft especially where galettes are concerned.

Slide the rolled-out dough, still between the papers, onto a baking sheet and freeze for at least 1 hour or refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Leave the dough on the counter for a few minutes until t’s flexible enough to lift and fold without cracking.


 

Hazelnut Frangipane

125 g softened unsalted butter

100g (1/2 cup) sugar

2 tsp plain flour

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

135 g (1 1/4 cups) hazelnut meal

To make the hazelnut meal, finely chop whole hazelnuts in a food processor. Set aside.

Place the butter and 100 g sugar in a food processor and whiz until combined. Add the flour and whiz to combine. With the motor running, add the eggs and vanilla, then add the hazelnut meal and whiz until well combined.

 


Pears

3 pears unpeeled and de-cored ( I used Bosc pears and I left on the skin on).

Cut the pears in half through the stem end and remove the cores with a spoon (I used a teapsoon). Slice the pears thinly and vertically, with slices 1/2 inch (12 mm) from the stem so the they remain attached at the stem end.


 

To assemble:

1.) Preheat the oven and the baking sheet to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). The preheated baking sheet helps crisp up the bottom of the pastry and minimizes the risk of a soggy bottom.

2.) Spread the hazelnut frangipane evenly on the dough, leaving 2 inches (5 cm) around the edge.

2.) Fan out the pear slices on the top of the frangipane layer – you may find it easier to split the pear fans in half and spread them out.

3.) Fold the edge of the galette dough towards the center.

Bake the galette for 45 to 55 minutes, until the crust is deeply golden brown and the frangipane turns a beige brown.

Note: The recipe makes leftover frangipane and dough for a mini-galette.

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin…”


Easy Pumpkin Ideas


“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself,

than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”- Henry David Thoreau


Easy pumpkin decorating ideas

A study of detail: El Escorial, Madrid

IMG_5467


North of Madrid, standing at the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, is the enormous complex known as the Escorial Monastery, which was built at the end of the 1500’s. Originally created as the retreat of King Philip II, the historical Spanish site includes a monastery and is surrounded on two sides with formal gardens.  These gardens, which were built on a large terrace, hug right up against the vast and impressive building, softening the transition into the open mountainous landscape just beyond the reaches of the palace. Scale and proportion are functions in unity between the building and the garden, with perspective playing a key part to the success of its layout.

The finer the view, the simpler the garden should be and this holds true here as the formal gardens are largely made up of clipped hedges, save for the white roses grown against the foundation of the immense building. In the past, the beds between the hedges were filled with bedding plants to look like beautiful carpets when viewed from the windows above, though this type of planting is no longer executed.  All is not lost on the design though, as the long unbroken walks used throughout are perfect for strolling and philosophizing, which was probably the purpose this garden served when the king walked these gardens during his time..


IMG_5455IMG_5452IMG_5513IMG_5479IMG_5483IMG_5466IMG_5489IMG_5429IMG_5475IMG_5499IMG_5471IMG_5418IMG_5507IMG_5503IMG_5416

Sunday Clippings

Palacio de Galiana, Toledo, Spain
Palacio de Galiana, Toledo, Spain

The heat of summer is in full swing here in Spain, and Madrid is often referred to as ‘the inferno’ by city dwellers.  These days trips out of the city are necessary to cool down a bit.  This weeks edition of Sunday Clippings is a pretty meaty list and covers all of our favorite bases, from art to horticulture. Click on the links below for some good reads, podcasts and some videos.  Enjoy your Sunday…. – James

Suit & Tie Horticulture, Oporto, Portugal

IMG_5131


A  few weeks ago I needed a bit of time away from Madrid, exploring a new city somewhere else, and Oporto, Portugal became the desired destination. Second time in Portugal, first being Lisboa (link), another city worth visiting again. It was a pleasant surprise to find so many terraces and balconies in Oporto hanging lush and green packed to the rails with plants, more so than I see in Madrid. The reason for this, I believe, is this is a coastal city with more moisture hanging in the air, a more hospitable climate for growing something green. Wandering through the city on foot, I passed over and over these small plant shops, flashing their wares in the windows.  The first few I passed were closed for lunch, but found this one called Casa Horticola, or Horticulture House.  The windows alone beckoned me from across the street, packets of vibrant color upon closer inspection turned out to be vintage seed packages. Nose pressed to window, I drooled at the items on the other side of the glass.

Untitled-1Untitled-2I saw seeds, bulbs, starter plants, vegetables, colors, flowers, cut flowers, possibilties, my future terrace all green and lush. I vowed to return and ravage the shop of goods to take home to my nearly empty terrace back in Madrid.  IMG_2613I went back later the same day and my jaw dropped when I went in. Marble counter tops, old style register, a scale, original molding details painted beautifully, and this was before fondling the merchandise, the goods that I came for.  It was as if time had stopped.   Focus, focus.  I began thumbing through everything, salivating like a kid in a candy store. The fact that I did not speak Portuguese nor the men working there English was not a problem, we managed. Through smiles and nods and slaps to the back of my hand, he took me through his store, guiding me through a plethora of many purchases of promise.  Dahlia tubers, ‘Bantling’, ‘Kenora Macob’, and ‘Shining Star’.  And lilies galore, such as ‘Gran Paraiso’ and ‘Geneve’. A Zantadeshchia may have jumped in to my basket too.  Artichoke seeds, cactus zinnias, everlasting flower and a pair of bulbs of Nerine ‘Ou Raguis’ which love to bake in heat, perfect for Spain I thought.  Did I really need a reason? IMG_2621

The posters of gladiolus on the walls beckoned me the way pin up girls adorn the inside of mechanic shops, ‘Hey Big Boy, over here, do you like what you see?!” Oh, yes, yes I do I thought, and gently tossed some into my basket as well, with the man guiding me back to reality.  ‘These, not those, you will like these better, trust me”, he seemed to be telling me without words.  I listened and took Gladiolus ‘Trader Home’, ‘Violetta’, and ‘Silver Spark’ (or was it ‘Spic and Span’??! His handwritten packages were hard to decipher). I’m buying frilly Gladiolus I thought and realized I needed to stop.  I ended my shopping spree, 30 euros later and two large bags, I left feeling guilty. “What happened? Did I buy more than I needed to?” It didn’t matter, I couldn’t wait to pack these treasures into the terrace containers at home.

IMG_2612Before I left, I asked the man, by way of hand gestures, if one photo of him and the shop was allowed, so he got behind the handsome counter, straightened his tie and stood proud.  How can  you not want to shop in such a magical shop guided by a horticulturist in a suit and tie? One of the best moments in Oporto, if you ever go, please visit…. Casi Horticola (link) – James

Coq Au Vin

DSC_0168

A coq au vin is the perfect dish for a lazy, snowy weekend. Not only does it taste great and stick to your ribs, but it’s even better when made ahead of time (which means it’s perfect for leftovers). So it’s also perfect for those lazy weekends where you might feel like welcoming friends to your table but don’t want to slave away by the stove, or weekends where you want to cook in advance for the rest of the week. Coq Au vin is not meant to be a pretentious dish; it is a homey and rustic dish that developed out of farmers’ need to use the abundance of wine and chickens and roosters. While there are as many recipes out there as there are French grandmothers, there are a few things to keep in mind for authenticity. Firstly, the only liquid in coq au vin is red wine (no tomatoes or tomato paste! No chicken stock! No white wine!). While variations are tasty, they’re not coq au vin. While coq au vin quite literally translates to “rooster in wine,” red wine is implied. (A similar dish is made with white wine, called coq au vin blanc/jaune, and is truly delicious, especially with morels.) Secondly, many coq au vin recipes call for cognac that one can either flamber in the dutch oven after browning the meat, or add at the end and allow to cook off. Feel free to use this if you have some on hand. I didn’t and didn’t feel like buying a bottle for a one-time use. Adding cognac definitely adds a little something special, but is not a requirement for authenticity. All of that said, I believe it is sometimes more important for a dish to be tasty than authentic, so I encourage you to try whatever regional variation floats your boat. This recipe includes an ingredient that struck me as unconventional – dark chocolate – but since it’s in a book authored by purists, I feel it is justified.

Ingredients:
• 6 strips of bacon
• 8 oz frozen pearl onions
• ½ lb sliced mushrooms (cremini, button…)
• 2 shallots finely chopped
• 1-2 carrots, chopped into 1” pieces
• 1 whole chicken, cut into parts (3-4 lbs)
• 1 bottle of strong red wine (like a pinot noir)
• Herbes de provence
• 1 tablespoon of flour
• 2 cloves garlic
• 2 squares of dark chocolate

1. In a bowl, marinate the chicken in the wine overnight. When ready to start cooking, remove the chicken from the wine and pat dry. Salt the chicken, and add a thin coating of the herbs to the chicken. Keep the wine and put aside for later.
2. In a dutch oven, crisp the bacon bits until all of the fat has been rendered and the meat is browned. Once the meat is crisped, remove the bacon and fat from the dutch oven and drain on a paper towel. Next, add the pearl onions to the dutch oven and sautee in the residual fat from the bacon. Remove and set aside once they have lightly browned.
3. Again in the residual fat, sautee the shallots, then the carrots. If there’s not enough fat to properly sautee, add some extra olive oil. Remove and put aside.
4. Using the same dutch oven, add a tablespoon of olive oil and butter and brown all of the pieces of chicken. Make sure not to crowd the pan and work in batches if necessary. Once browned, remove the chicken and set aside.
5. Add the flour to the pan and scrape and mix with all the drippings. Now add the chicken back into the pan, along with the bacon, carrots, and shallots (leave the pearl onions out). Add the wine to the pot and make sure not to cover the chicken entirely (the liquid should just barely cover the meat). If you don’t have enough wine you can add some water. At this point, add the remaining herbs (garlic, bay leaf,…) and the chocolate.
6. Bring the liquid to a boil, and lower the heat to barely a simmer. Cook for 40 minutes. When ready to serve, remove the chicken and cook down the sauce to desired thickness. (The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Usually I cook the sauce down by half.) If the sauce is still not the desired thickness, you can take a tablespoon of butter and flour, mashed together in a separate bowl, and then added to the sauce. This will act as a thickening agent.
7. In a separate pan, cook up the mushrooms: mushrooms often contain a lot of water, and so I cook them first by just adding them to a hot pan with salt to cook out the moisture. Once the moisture is cooked out, then I actually saute them with oil and butter. Once cooked, add the mushrooms to the sauce, along with the pearl onions. Add parsley before serving.

 

 

Summertime Recipes: Fresh Summer Berries and Peaches with Sabayon

Summer is a time of intense flavors. There’s nothing quite like the bursting flavor of corn kernels, cherry tomatoes, or berries, delivering  a rush of sweetness to your taste buds. Here, the classic flavors of corn, tomatoes, and basil are combined in a homemade sweet corn ravioli.  Squash blossoms, the beautiful blossoms of the male zucchini, are the perfect appetite teaser.  They are stuffed and fried and served as an appetizer. Their sweetness pairs wonderfully with the crispy and light-as-a-feather breading enveloping the cheesy stuffing. They’re a summer classic, best nibbled on with good friends in the kitchen with a glass of wine while you prepare the rest of dinner. Dessert was also a hit—the warm and comforting flavor of summer berries with perfectly ripened Pennsylvania peaches, topped with a sabayon; so delicious yet simple it’s almost criminal. ~ Danielle

DSC_0022

 

Fresh Summer Berries and Peaches with Sabayon
Sabayon is delicious spooned over any berries. In this version, we use blackberries and raspberries, along with some sweet summer peaches.

For the Sabayon from David Lebovitz:
• 2/3 cup sweet white wine (I used muscato)
• 1/3 cup white sugar
• 6 egg yolks For the Berries
• 1 pint blackberries
• 1 pint raspberries
• 1 tbsp sugar
• A splash of the sweet wine
• Prepare the berries. A few hours before serving (2-3 hours), put the berries in a bowl with a tablespoon of sugar. Mix delicately. The sugar will pull out the juices and create a delicious berry sauce. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
• Make the sabayon. In a non-reactive metal bowl, whisk the sugar and the wine, until the sugar dissolves. Add the egg yolks to the mixture, and create a double boiler by setting the bowl over a lightly simmering pan of water (the water should not be touching the bottom of the bowl). Whisk vigorously until the mixture is frothy and stiff. You will know the sabayon is ready when the mixture holds its shape when you remove the whisk. If you need to take a break from whisking, make sure to remove the bowl from the heat, otherwise you will end up with scrambled eggs. The sabayon is best served warm, although it keeps for several days in the refrigerator (and is quite delicious this way as well).
• Assemble. Chop the peaches unto 1” cubes, and add to the berry mixture, and mix gently, coating the peaches in the berry juice. Spoon the fruit mixture into a bowl, and top with the sabayon.

 

DSC_0037