The Manly Spa
“The Metrosexual is dead,” declares Bill Chrismer, owner of Gentlemen’s Quarters, a new breed of all-male spa once synonymous with that term. “Men hated it,” he states from his clubby Denver emporium where males can indulge in body scrubs, seaweed wraps and brow waxes in the company of their own kind. With today’s more nuanced view of masculinity, men are more comfortable partaking in pedicures, manicures and facials, Chrismer notes, as long as they’re called “foot repair,” “hand details” and “skin fitness treatments.”
While men’s spas may not yet have arrived at a mall near you, an appreciation for good grooming is reaching beyond the opera going, latte sipping, big-city set. “We had these two huge Harley Davidson riders in a few years back,” recalls ichael Gilman, founder of Washington D.C.’s Grooming Lounge. “These guys were gritty as they come. But after a foot treatment and massage, one told me our services were on a par with being on his bike out on the open road.”
“There’s definitely been a change in men’s attitudes towards spas,” observes Greg Savarese, owner of Chicago’s 316 Club. “The proof is in the advertising,” he notes citing the glut of ads for men’s grooming products in publications like Men’s Health, Men’s Journal and Playboy.
Even medical procedures such as facelifts, lasers and peels are on more men’s To Do lists these days, less out of vanity they claim, than to retain an edge in business. “I think Baby Boomers realize they will be working relatively late in life,” notes John Esposito, co-founder of Truman's Gentlemen's Groomers inNew York, “and that looking good is a competitive advantage in the work place. We see men who understand that it takes a little effort to maintain one's best appearance, and are exploring options such as color, waxing and facials.”
Yet even the most enlightened males may feel a feel a twinge of discomfort waiting for a Foot Detail surrounded by bathrobe-clad females. “My wife tells me she always feels badly when a man walks into a nail salon,” admits Savarese, “and all 10 women waiting for manicures look at the guy as if he’s accidentally walked into the Ladies Room.”
Beyond the desire to infuse a bit of testosterone into the pedicure, Savarese and his sartorial colleagues feel a single gender atmosphere is the ideal place for a man to prepare for that first time brow pluck. Surroundings that say ‘men live here,’ such as flat screen TV’s pulsing with goalie sticks and stock market scores, dark woods and a few Laddie magazines are essential to men’s comfort, aestheticians feel.
Nickel’s Spa for Men in New York goes a step further, adding cobalt lighting and chrome trim to confer the virile ambience of a submarine. The décor at 316 recreates andocentric Rat Pack Vegas with a pool table, cushy leather chairs and the libertine air of a night at the Copa. It’s a place with enough sex appeal to fold chest waxes and mud masks into packages called The Player, The Pit Boss and The Capo, and attract the likes of Chicago Wolves Coach John Anderson, who not long ago submitted the corporeal crash sites he’s collected over 12 years with the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 316 makeover. Since some men are trading their pub time for spa treatments, spas like the Grooming Lounge also offer an expansive bar where clients can take a pre-back wax tipple. “At a women’s salon it’s highly unlikely you’ll see someone throwing back a tasty brew,” Gilman asserts.
Yet the difference between co-ed and all men’s spas runs far deeper than woody walls and clever metaphors for exfoliation. Long robes and a short service menu topped the wish list in pre-opening research for El Rey - Spanish for “The King” – an Austin, Texas men’s spa where elaborate old time barber chairs evoke the mid-century barbershop where owner Clint Campbell had his first hot towel shave. Campbell also learned that “men won’t read through a six page menu the way women will,” and that they prefer results-oriented treatments such as El Rey’s Vital Leg Treatment, which promises to soothe the achy limbs of athletes and frequent fliers. Men also like one-stop shopping, Campbell discovered, so El Rey piggybacks its treatments, offering a manicure/pedicure during haircuts, as well as a four-hand massage that cuts the time and doubles the pleasure. And since El Rey is actually a private men’s club open to Day Members, there’s a staff of Executive Assistants skilled at time saving tasks like scaring up an 8 PM table at Austin’s hottest dining spot, booking flights, calling in a tailor for a quick repair, steaming suits and washing the car before clients are out of the Jacuzzi shower. That way, even time-pressed C-level execs can create space in their day for El Rey’s 24-step straight razor shave with a mini facial.
Sound like extensive research for what some might call a ‘male beauty salon?’ “Spas are becoming big business,” notes Campbell, a veteran Dell financial executive turned philanthropist and entrepreneur, “going from mom and pop outfits to an industry accountable to Wall Street.” According to the International Spa Association, men’s spas are the fastest growing segment of the business: Males now comprise 31% of spa goers and 36% of ‘spa travelers’ who first become enamored of treatments on holiday, and continue at home.
Still, the biggest issue for the spa-going male is privacy. “Men like one on one attention,” says Doug Coburn of Ottawa’s Bode spa, where a vault-like steel door shelters two private massage rooms with 9 foot stone walls. “They like to get the advice, get the service and be on their way in a private fashion.”
Men crave a “discreet and protected environment where they feel comfortable discussing their needs,” adds Gentleman’s Quarters’ Chrismer, a place to voiceinsecurities about issues such as the Uni-Brow and Nose Hair. The Grooming Lounge website www.groominglounge.com even offers tips such as using a scented body wash “when you just can’t blame the dog any longer,” and advises a solid 30-second gargle and tongue brushing to curb “breath that has more kick than Bruce Lee.” The men’s spa is a place for frank talk. When that artful arrangement atop your pate is in danger of approaching a ‘Cincinnati Sweep,’you can count on these folks to stage a reality check on your hairline, and be prepared to hear the cold truth about the smoking, processed foods and sun exposure that cause fine lines, brown spots and dull skin.
Yet even aestheticians are surprised to find that the most popular men’s spa treatment is waxing. Possibly because “we only service men,” notes Truman’s co-owner John Esposito, “so when you come in for a back wax there’s no fear of running into an old girlfriend.”
“I didn’t expect it when we drew up the blue prints,” says Savarese of the back, chest and eyebrow waxes at 316, whose straightforward website clarifies: “We don't wax Big Jim and the Twins, so please don't ask.”
Professional groomers didn’t always incite such apprehension in males. The valet of a 19th century gentleman would run his bath, administer a straight razor shave, iron his top hat, wash and stretch his gloves and help him undress for bed. Even today belonging to the right spa is a social requirement for business success in many parts of the world.
To their credit, men are bridging the grooming gap with commendable speed, creating a demand for spa services so highly evolved they’re luring women: a tricky issue since a primary attraction is the ‘boy’s club’ atmosphere. While most turn female clients away, El Rey invites members’ female companions every Friday and Saturday night to partake of the lavish bar, and women may come to the Grooming Lounge if they’re keen for a male haircut.
Still, women are well known ‘gender interlopers,’ as quick to appropriate their male partner’s sports massage as to steal a crisp dress shirt from the closet. “My husband is a Neanderthal,” an El Rey wife alleges. “He doesn’t know anything about rooming and now he has better facials than I do.”
All male spas, you say? Better post guards at the towers and think about digging a moat: If these spas get any better, we women will be storming the gates.
My first experience with gastronomic pairing was matzo ball soup and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda in the sprawling prep kitchen of my grandparents’ Catskills Mountains hotel. While this cacophonous staging area for a 140-seat dining room may not seem conducive to a contemplative tasting experience, every flavor and aroma I experienced during those years is etched into my memory. As in many cultures, food was the emotional lynchpin of the ‘Jewish Alps,’ and a hunk of sweet noodle pudding or raisin-crammed rugelach was the currency with which to express love.
The commanding presence of my grandmother, Ida Forman, was synonymous with that legendary Borscht Belt cuisine, for me as well as for three generations of guests at Harry Forman’s Manor. In her paprika smeared chef’s apron, straps gathered in an enormous safety pin to accommodate her 4’9” 80 lb frame, Ida ran her kitchen with the panache of a Barnum and Bailey ringmaster. But even while folding dough for blintzes and barking at some hapless waiter to pick up another few plates of lox, she could always find a moment to dispatch an extra pile of ‘lukshen’ – Yiddish for noodles - for my soup or send over a chewy Toll House cookie studded with hunks of chocolate.
My grandparents were renowned in the Catskills for setting a bountiful table. Ida’s opulent spin on Eastern European dishes plumped up by America’s abundant agriculture - roast chicken shimmering with paprika gravy or the cold sorrel scented potato soup known as shav – kept Forman’s Manor packed for almost forty years. We were a family of pioneers, I’d always been told, as my grandparents were among the first Jewish immigrants to open a hotel in the Catskills. Arriving in America at the dawn of the 20th century, they were hungry to own land, a privilege that had been denied to Jews in Russia. So around 1920, with a little cash and even less experience, but possessed of a fearsome will to succeed in this new world, they bought a chicken farm 100 miles north of New York’s Lower East Side.
A few years later, they snatched a better opportunity: hosting the rush of city dwellers that came to Sullivan Country seeking a breath of country air. While other farmers ran ‘kuchalayns’ - sparse rooms with kitchen privileges - my grandmother knew her way around a boiled brisket and was one of the first to offer three copious feeds a day; dishes like hefty mounds of roughly cut chicken liver studded with globules of ‘schmaltz’ (rendered chicken fat) and the rosy beet soup that gave the ‘Borscht Belt’ its name. So even as their guests demanded American style amenities like tennis courts and an “Olympic Sized” swimming pool, whose cumbersome filtration system anointed bathers in a summer-long eau de chlorine, it was food like Ida’s tzimmes – an almost medieval-style sweet beef stew which might include sweet potatoes, prunes, carrots and cinnamon - that provided the sentimental touchstone they craved.
The 1950’s was the Borscht Belt’s heyday, a time when the immigrants who fled the Russian pogroms as children finally secured a toehold in America’s middle class. And it was my grandmother’s culinary largess – the way she blanketed plump chunks of pickled herring with cupfuls of silken cream and crowded soup plates with so many meat-filled kreplach it was hard to find the liquid – that was a symbol of just how far they had come. This generation was ferociously determined to make their mark on America, and in place of formal education or family pedigree, they developed a brutal work ethic that was evident in any Catskill hotel kitchen, even to a small child like me. “We hardly ever had a break,” acknowledges my cousin, 68-year-old Arnie Rosenblum, a retired electronics engineer who worked as a busboy at Forman’s Manor from age 14. (“Your grandparents hid me when the inspectors came,” he confides.) “Between meals we were lifeguards at the pool, served milk and cookies to the children, and in the evening we were the entertainment,” he recalls, “putting on skits in the casino.”
But to me the hotel kitchen was a thrill ride, a place where silverware thundered from sink to drying bin, where the industrial sized mixer churned a mountain of strudel dough, and where waiters hoisted trays heavily laden with delicacies like gefilte fish, jelly omelets, or the unexpectedly flavorsome boiled meat known as ‘flanken’ precariously over the cooks’ heads. With my privileged status as the owner’s granddaughter, I roamed this hectic workplace as self-importantly as if I’d been granted an All Access pass to a Rolling Stones concert. And while I’m sure my help laying forks in the dining room was invaluable, I was better known as a three-foot high traffic hazard, once causing the entire kitchen staff to skip a collective heartbeat as I raced between the legs of a waiter carrying a tray loaded with scalding soup.
While the service at Forman’s Manor was swift and accommodating, a room full of self-made businessmen who had scrapped their way to a comfortable clearing in the garment business or the pickle business or to a rarified oasis pedaling furs, was a demanding crowd. I recall the car salesman who claimed he could spot substandard smoked salmon from across the room, and every rag trade entrepreneur considered himself a chicken soup sommelier. Still, my grandparents managed to create an atmosphere that was part extended family table, part boot camp - “One of my jobs was to play records over the loudspeaker at 6 AM to wake people up,” my cousin Arnie recalls – that produced a return rate any Four Seasons would envy.
Still, even the most trying guests agreed that my grandmother was the keystone of the hotel’s delicate chemistry. With the stamina of an Olympian, she rose at 3 AM to stoke the ovens and pack coffee into the industrial size percolator, along with a few raw eggs to clarify the brew. And by the time I arrived at breakfast she was already behind the long metal work counter basting a battalion of chickens for dinner and reminding every perspiring waiter and butterfingered busboy that while they might be esteemed scholars for nine months of the year, right now they’d better focus on the pickled herring.
The staff must have managed a few free hours a week, however, as I remember endless boasts of “Dirty Dancing” style capers such as grabbing late night trysts behind the old chicken coops that served as waiters’ barracks, or gnawing a 3 AM pastrami sandwich at Kaplan’s deli in Monticello. The good news was that if hauling trays at 6 AM after a night of carousing was tough, it probably made a medical intern’s 100-hour workweek feel like a nap.
By the mid 50’s, however, the vicious pace took its toll on my grandfather’s health and Ida and Harry retired. On the surface, they had accomplished everything they sought: My father’s dental practice was flourishing and he was a founding father of the split-level suburbs. By the time I came of age in the 60’s I was no different from every other affluent American teenager, ready to throw off the yolk of ‘bourgeois middle class values’ my grandparents had struggled to achieve.
But Ida never could find her place in this new order. The concept of gardening or leafing through a magazine or taking in a movie for pleasure alone seemed quite mad to someone who had run a good-sized business all her life. Ida never understood how to cook for a family of four, only for a dining room of more than a hundred; and while she couldn’t balance a checkbook, she appeared to have kept the hotel’s entire accounting system in her head. So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when in her later years Ida’s mind bobbed back to the time she inspired awe by turning out a thousand plates of food a day. For years after my grandfather died and the grandchildren went off to college, Ida could still be found in front of her stove churning out stuffed chickens, boiling cauldrons of soup and filling blintzes for the ghostly cadres still hungry for a piece of the shtetl.
The author age 3 at Forman's Manor
The woman who vowed she'd taste anything, arthropods included, plans to draw the line at surströmming, fermented herring from northern Sweden with an aroma so pungent the locals compare it to "gas from the back."
"I ate surströmming 25 years ago on my first trip to Scandinavia," recalls my brother, Michael, who despite this dubious delicacy moved to his wife's hometown of Umeå, 500 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. "That," he shudders, "was enough. It's the kind of thing you might try for the experience, like skydiving," he admits, "but not quite so addictive."
Rotten eggs, rancid butter and three-week-old garbage are a few of surströmming's more colorful descriptors. "The taste is difficult to express,"Mike observes, "since your olfactory sense is long dead before the fish gets to your mouth."
Which is why I'm certain that my sister in law Helen's diminutive 70-year-old mother, Marianne, is playing some cruel Swedish joke on this North American newcomer when she declares, "I'm crazy about surströmming; it reminds me of my childhood." The cruelest news, however, turns out to be that Marianne isn't joking. "I don't get it as often as I'd like these days because you can't eat surströmming by yourself," she continues wistfully. "It's the kind of food that should be shared with someone who likes it as much as you." Wary looks all around, since the family seems to know what's coming: "So when are we having the surströmming party?" Marianne queries with that senior citizen brand of entitlement that transforms a question into a command.
Surströmming is usually eaten in groups: possibly for courage, certainly to amplify the bawdy songs that often follow to assuage this culinary ordeal. It is also devoured outdoors, since science has yet to formulate a fumigator powerful enough to vanquish its formidable odor. "You can tell there's a surströmming party going on from blocks away," my brother advises from experience. Since it's May and the weather is warming – I've already removed both my hat and the second pair of gloves – it's ideal surströmming party weather. So off we go to the local mega mart to peruse the whole venal selection. As Helen and Marianne forage for the tins that look most precariously swollen with fermentation gas, I can hear my brother, a dentist who knows his bacterial toxins, muttering something about botulism.
After driving home slowly to forestall premature detonation, Michael prepares his palette of surströmming opening tools - sturdy work gloves and a can opener deemed ready for the trash - as I roll out my telephoto lens and back off to a safe distance. "I really should be doing this underwater since the pressurized liquid has a tendency to shoot," my brother admits just before uttering a phrase you never want to hear from your dentist, or from your surströmming opener: "Uh oh," he cries as a putrid geyser shoots six feet in the air, followed by an ominously long pause. "I think I got some on your jeans," he cowers in a manner I haven't seen since he was three. I laugh, certain this is some arcane Swedish-style taunt, until one horrified whiff sends me reeling. And after I was nice enough to teach him to walk.
Helen shows a bit more sympathy. "I guess we forgot to tell you that after a surströmming party you have to shower, wash your hair and put all your clothes in the laundry."
Thanks for the heads up.
My sweet justice is knowing their refrigerator will retain a surströmming bouquet for weeks to come, since even though the fish itself never breeched the perimeter, its potent odor will corrupt any foodstuff sharing its airspace.
My immediate concern, however, is the fish on my plate. Which I am expected to eat. Since my gut response is that bathing in surströmming may be preferable to ingesting it, I suspect some clever modus operandi for the task must have developed over the centuries. Carefully observing my companions, I see some burying fish shards in a pillow of mandelpotatis, the local almond shaped potatoes, while others are jury-rigging a protective edifice of onion and local Västerbottencheese around the fish before cinching it with tunnbröd , Swedish thin bread, to preclude any possible skin contact. Yet when the construction passes my lips, I'm surprised to find surströmming doesn't taste as bad as it smells. At least not quite as bad, as the tiny slivers are transformed into a sharp savory seasoning akin to Asia's fermented fish sauce, nuóc mam.
As the rest of us progress toward the elderflower schnapps portion of the evening, only the fearless Marianne is taking the valiant path, meticulously de-boning specimens from the can of whole herrings I assumed we bought as a prank.
By now, having consumed enough surströmming to justify a lifelong boast - that would be two bites - I turn my attention to the burnished ribs my brother has grilled as a backup. "These are magnificent," I mumble between ravenous mouthfuls. "What's the recipe?"
"Easy," Michael reveals. "Serve surströmming first."
Surströmming buffered by egg, bread, and potatoes. Photo by Janet Forman
Before spending an evening at Liquidrom I didnt fully understand how hard it could be to balance on a bar stool soaking wet. Imprudently, I hadnt brought a towel to Berlins wet nightclub. So resigning myself to a slow air dry, I took a firmer grip on my beer and attempted to put the scene around me --- several dozen nearly naked 30-somethings immersed in a seductively lit pool, listening to music on underwater speakers --- into some sort of social context. I had nothing. But that was to be expected.
Berlin has always had an easy alliance with outr culture. This open minded city has nurtured such once radical movements as Expressionism, Dadaism and Bauhaus, and even today transvestite shows seem as commonplace as family fare. Yet, no matter how progressive the social milieu, theres still something decidedly odd about floating in a saltwater pool watching a light show, listening to music that can only be heard when submerged: a "Woodstock" meets "Last Year at Marienbad" sensation with a trace of "The Emperors New Clothes."
Theres nothing new about German spas as a gathering spot, or about bathing in the buff - a common practice at health resorts like Baden Baden a century ago. My first clue that the two year old Liquidrom was akin to this sybaritic 19th century experience, however, was the locker room, for after my traveling companion and I discreetly entered through our respective male and female doorways, we stood facing one another on the other side. The changing area was completely co-ed. Clinging to a last remaining shred of propriety I used all my maze crawling skills to seek out a female-only corner in which to don my bathing suit.
A few steps outside the locker room I realized I neednt have bothered as I found I had stepped into yet another inter-gender naked zone: Liquidroms saunas and plunge pools. As a novice to nude bathing my most serious concern here was etiquette - I felt torn between attempting to gaze at my companions solely from the lips up and taking a studiously casual stance that might be construed as gawking. While no instructional signs were posted, look discreetly and enjoy appeared to be entirely acceptable behavior.
Its communal aspects aside, Liquidroms origins are more spiritual and physical than social. Creator Micky Remann reveals that the idea came from Orc whale songs, which he associates with an archaic human need to connect with water. The facilitys focal point is the 134 square meter warm saline Liquidrom Pool with 12 underwater speakers broadcasting themed music from a DJ or, occasionally, live band performances. When floating with your ears just below the surface theres no need to swim as the salts buoyancy effortlessly suspends the body like an astronauts in space Remann notes that the bones and muscles work like a huge eardrum. Sound travels through the whole body, and Remann claims holding your ears closed should have no effect on sound quality. Acoustics of the Pool itself are equally peculiar: a whisper from the center can be heard all over the room. (Which means you might want to save those sweet nothings for someplace more private, like the adjacent shadowy grotto.) With up to fifty people partaking in this liquid encounter, a concert becomes a unique form of social interaction, more intimate than sharing a beer in a pub, yet with each person wrapped in their own watery cocoon.
The Pool, however, is only part of the Liquidrom experience. The facilitys 1,360 square meters encompass saunas and steam rooms, an icy plunge pool, a 104 F degree outdoor Japanese onsen --- filled with cold-inured Berliners even in December --- and land-side Sound Lounger chairs with headphones for those who have turned pruney. Theres also a full bar and restaurant with a menu that ranges from herbal Chinese gingko and kefir drinks, to homey hand made bagels with marmalade and honey. In keeping with Liquidroms mind/body orientation and Germanys zeal for alternative medicine, the club offers an imaginative roster of therapeutic massages: well known techniques such as Reike and Shiatsu, Structural Bodywork that combines deep tissue massage with a series of hand grips, a Beauty Face massage that unites holistic and Ayurvedic philosophies, and a warm oil massage with the contradictory moniker, Energetic Trance. Practitioners will also carry, sway, stretch and massage you in the Liquidrom Pool using a technique called Aqua Wellness Bodywork, which purports to confer the benefits of exercise sans sweat.
Liquidrom is actually the third, aquatic, stage of the larger entertainment facility, Tempdrom, which since its inception in December 2001 has been regarded as an all encompassing circus tent of experimental theater. Liquidroms concert venue reaches far beyond whale songs, presenting styles that range from Mahler to Eno. Theme nights include Classical Music on Fridays, and DJs spinning a mix of trance and ambient on Saturdays. They also mount literary readings and one off programs such as an evening with The Laughing Shaman, a rock-style classical DJ who offers a tour "from Renaissance to Romantic and back," and a night of "your favorite porn films," both gay and hetero. But the most magical interlude might be at the full moon, when the pool area is illuminated only by moonlight and live performances run until 2 AM.
An evening at Liquidrom is likely to be different from anything youve ever encountered. To make the most of it, discard your inhibitions and your dress code, and forget the rules of gravity. But do remember to bring a towel.
Paris, 4 AM: As the last night crawlers slink out of clubs and spent musicians tote their horns home from gigs, we five bleary-eyed food lovers are hurtling down the moody streets toward a brightly-lit district the size of Monaco on the edge of town: the sprawling commercial food market, Rungis.
When the gritty meat and produce stalls of Les Halles decamped for this isolated precinct in the 1970s, the stomach of Paris became the province of professionals only: restaurateurs, chefs, and a few lucky stagiaires kitchen assistants - who tag along in their wake. To join this market crawl, weve become something akin to stagiaires for a day, apprenticed to Chef Laurent Delarbre of InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotels Caf de la Paix.
In daylight Rungis is a ghost town. But near midnight when trucks start rolling in loaded with comestibles like lush Mediterranean tuna, crisp peas from Spain, and tender milk lamb from the Pyrnes, 20,000 workers swarm the market - fishmongers in Wellies skinning rosy rouget, butchers in blood smeared smocks hacking through a forest of beef, grocers prying open crates of the first fat asparagus of spring - and suddenly baristas are pulling cups of rich black espresso in side-street cafs, vendors are hawking newspapers, attendants are pumping gas, and a full blown city has come alive in the dead of night.
At the fish market, the 21st century meets the 12th. While its fully computerized to log each arrival as strict French food laws demand, and motorized carts tear up the aisles piled with briny seafood, workers still use lethal looking sabers to fillet by hand, and stalls ring with the boisterous banter of a medieval marketplace. Although I nearly wander off to gawk breeds of kingly crustaceans and scallops the size of a babys fist, which surely must come from a different planet than the wares in my neighborhood market, I stick close to Delarbre who is holding what amounts to an advanced seminar for the fussy buyer, hunting down fish with the brightest eyes, the reddest gills, and the freshest aroma for Caf de la Paix. Vendors know he is hard to please: "If hes going to take two hundred pieces, I prepare twelve hundred to show him," teases Antoine Mirakoff at Le Royaume des Mers.
As we enter the produce halls Delarbre pulls out a knife; not because this is the seamy side of the market, but to sample anything that looks appealing. "Strawberries with the strongest aroma are not necessarily the tastiest," he informs us. "You have to try them. And never buy perfect looking produce," a common North American error. "Mature fruit often has spots, and food grown without pesticides can be misshapen," he advises as he hacks open a green zebra striped tomato, just one of the niche crops on this stadium-sized selling floor that include snow-colored carrots, a red and white squash so wildly spattered it looks like it was worked over by a gang kindergarteners with paintbrushes, and the next player on the baby vegetable scene, MICRO vegetables: plants harvested before they bear fruit, when all its flavor is concentrated in the leaves.
With produce efficiently flown in from every corner of the planet, even fragile crops like cherries never go out of season, yet Delarbre feels waiting for the local harvest brings an emotional lift. "Theres a sense of expectation to the first asparagus of spring," he maintains. "Clients should accept that not everything is available all year;" tough love for musk melon addicts. "They should learn to appreciate the subtle differences from one day to the next. Produce is the star of gastronomy," he avows as he taste tests a raw yellow beet. "A good product that is over-cooked or ill-seasoned will still be acceptable, but not the reverse."
The first thing I learn when we get to the meat hall is that nothing snaps you out of a 5 AM torpor faster than the sight of a great big sack of tongues; not the lighthearted repartee between butchers in blood spattered smocks, not workmen downing beef on baguettes flanked by rows of hanging carcasses, not even the lively 9 AM bar scene at restaurant LEtoile Rungis, which is where we wind up when our own stomachs start growling. At an hour when some white collar types are hitting the snooze button, market workers are gathering here for an end of the day entrecte with a quart of fries, washed down by a glass of vin de table. While I give the tongue sandwich a pass, as soon as the Bordeaux starts flowing I know my breakfast must be a bloody rare T-bone so big it hangs over the sides of my plate.
Lucky thing Im fortified, as the next few hours in the kitchen with Delarbre and his crew is not the sort of calm instruction offered by most culinary schools, but a session that closely resembles a professional restaurants lunch rush. Armed with beaters, high tech cutting boards, and very sharp knives we each scuttle to a station helmed by Delarbre or a sous chef where we peel vegetables, whisk dessert crme, or poach eggs, learning by example like traditional stagiaires. These are skills that can only be taught in person, like the correct pressure for piercing an eggshell - puncturing the air pocket with a needle before boiling produces a perfectly round shape - or listening for the simmering sound of milk just before it overflows into ruin.
Its also a place to share the camaraderie of highly skilled artisans working full tilt, and grasp the values that garnered 35 year old Laurent Delarbre the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), Best Workman in France, an honor bestowed upon the countrys preeminent artisans since the 1920s: his meticulous attention to detail balanced by a deference for ingredients."I know where every product in this kitchen comes from; I can even tell you the name of the rabbit," he jokes as he demonstrates removing pith from an orange while preserving its shape. (The key is a dauntingly sharp knife like his own, whose blade is worn into a deep "U" from years of use.) But for Delarbre instinct is as crucial as technique. "In this line of work, thinking is futile; cooking is essentially about emotion and desire," he feels. "The product calls the tune, because no two mushrooms are the same; no two pieces of lamb are identical."
Even though this soft spoken young man is far from the caricature kitchen tyrant with a "big hat and a bad attitude," Delarbre has great respect for the old ways. "I cant stand square plates and Im not in favor of the current trend that makes packaging and decoration more important than food," he declares. "Even with todays techniques, we have invented nothing more than our ancestors," he believes. "I simply bring traditional dishes up to date with lighter preparation," like his navarin - lamb stew - with sauce closer to juice than gravy. For Delarbre, plating is a time-honored art just as important as knife skills, and we are corrected if we place our asparagus spears a few degrees off kilter. While his strict training is no barrier to new ideas, even Delarbres forays into science project cuisine are anchored in his past; he recalls the popping sugar in his Chocolate Farandole - which jumps like sweet fireworks on the tongue from a childhood candy. Yet my request for a taste just before lunch is met with an emphatic head shake. "At the end of the meal," Im admonished gently but in no uncertain terms. That would ruin my palate for certain.
Rungis. Photo by Janet Forman.
"Bobos are invading the 11me," I hear the old timers whisper between sips of inky caf filtr. Its hard to argue. Over the last five years, the architects, actors and other successful creatives Parisians call bourgeois-bohmeshave been transforming this frayed quarter of bare bones cafs, mom and pop Algerian sweet shops, and artisan woodworkers ateliers into a hub of under-the-radar cool that rivals New Yorks Lower East Side, Antwerps Het Zuid, and Torontos (insert the trendy neighborhood of your choice). By definition, Bobos bring baggage, and now these once gritty shop fronts are blooming with madcap indie fashion like billowing skirts made from Aunt Lilis flowered housecoat; audacious chefs are unleashing the fresh scent of lemongrass in kitchens long dominated by steak frites; and book sellers are stocking hipster-friendly titles like African poetry, Kerouac, and the urbane comics and graphic novels known as Bande Desinee.
Far from chic like the neighboring Marais, the 11me is still an attitude free arrondissement where halting schoolbook French wont make you a pariah. Indeed a language malfunction that threatened to impede my purchase of a rustic-looking tart at Gourmandaises, a four month old, country chic tea room on a lively stretch of Rue Oberkampf, rallied a linguistic EMS squad of fellow customers that included a local journalist, a law professor living in Nancy, and a neighborhood restaurateur. The rescue mission sparked a caffeine-fueled, afternoon-long repartee that skittered from politics, to the soaring price of real estate, to the kind of heated debate that sometimes comes to blows on the neighborhoods most authentic pain au levain.
The question was settled peacefully, however, with a consensus on Moisan boulangerie just over the border in the 12me, where the nutty aromas ofhand formed sourdough loaves, flutes, and fougasse perfume the Place dAligre. Its a part of town caught in the era when Gene Kelly was an "American in Paris," where elderly gents in berets poke through each stall of the souk-like March Couvert Beauvau to find the tangiest farmstead cheese, the tenderest suckling pig, and the plumpest pork sausages. Gentrification is still a long way off: the aesthetic is raw, boutiques have names like Brutal, and a woman alone might be greeted with an obscene gesture. But since tourists are rare, most newcomers are welcomed with great hearted warmth, as when an effusive Algerian baker at Les Noces dOr filled my bag with char crusted breads and almond rosewater sweets gratis, "just because youre a stranger and we want you to return." At least I think thats what he said.
The most sociable spot for newcomers to lOnzime may be Le Kitch (sic), where secondhand furniture and wallpaper made of 1970s magazine soap ads have a ramshackle appeal that is worlds away from velvet ropes and the chic-i-tini du jour. 29 year old owner Jean-Charles Bravo, a popular scenester with goofy charm who brought his clientelefrom the trendy Bob Cool in the 6me, feels the 11me is a good place for a bar thats more about bonhomie than design. "That guy," he points to a blond dreadlocked youth passing by, "comes in with his mother. This is a meeting point. People talk to one another here, and that makes me happy," he beams. "Thats why it exists."
Meeting points are the soul of LOnzime. Tables at pause-caf are filled with intense-looking 20-somethings in threadbare cashmere with a ragged shake of hair, locked in conversation as they juggle cigarette, wineglass, and cell phone with stunning dexterity. Outside on Rue de Charonne, North African mothers hustle children home from school past shops selling henna, harissa, and fresh mint for tea that flank branches of high fashion boutiques from Saint Germain des Prs, such as Isabel Marant. A few blocks away on Rue Jean-Mac, the old school woodworkers have been joined by free spirited artisans like Caroline Giraud who gives salvage furniture a capricious spin with equal doses of rose paint and imagination. Across the street from her gallery, Carouche, neighbors gather at Pure Cafs stately bar as much for the gilded gaslight era trappings as for inventive dishes like Hawaiian poke marinated tuna with basil, and Vietnamese inspired chocolate nem spring rolls - with coffee sauce and green cardamom. And the narrow Rue Saint-Sabin, a moody lane that snakes off throbbing Bastille Square, draws nostalgia seekers looking for a heady rush of the post war Paris inhabited by youthful Belmondo and Deneuve, who settle into red leather banquettes with a hearty plate of leeks vinaigrette at Cafes de L'industrie.
Still, parts of the 11me are changing, like the prosaic stretch of Rue Folie-Mricourt thats becoming a fashionable corridor leaning toward green. La Cave de LInsolite, a sprawling cellar strewn with an eclectic collection of 19th century bottles, Japanese art, and the odd dinosaur bone, has amassed an extensive stock of bio wines and eaux-de-vie free of sulfites or chemicals, many from small producers that never reach North America. A few doors down, four month old Markethic sells Fair Trade food and crafts such as chocolates from the relief agency OXFAM, Iranian rose oil from the Dutch humanist Project Tautro, and handmade sheepskin booties from Bosnia. Next door at Mixing Club, Sebastian Libbrochts wares echo the work of cutting edge clothing designers who repurpose vintage fabrics into sleek new shapes, by turning flea market finds into retro-chic furnishings; tableware, for instance, that recalls a time when raw milk cheese could be slathered on a hunk of pain ordinaire without fear of reprisal from government health authorities or the fitness police.
Not far away, on the border of the Marais, the hedonistic Murano Urban Resort has become a weekend retreat for dcor-mad Bobos seeking to pump up their design cred. Here they can they can shimmy into a (surprisingly comfortable) metallic armchair, unlock doors with fingerprints instead of keys, and bathe in voguish loos without doors: a most agreeable short term sojourn to bohemia, especially when homey shops selling pistachio laced, honey drenched ptisserie orientale are just around the corner
l'Onzime Cafe. Photo by Janet Forman
Finding the gas gauge in the trunk of my Lada should have been a clue. The commendable bottle of Armenian cabernet sauvignon for US $1.50, versus Internet fees three times that price should have been another hint. But it took repeated encounters with companies like Lemon Rent-a-Car, Viagra Bar, and Mafia Pizza, (we wont even discuss Barf laundry detergent), to realize that in Armenia, my cultural disparity alert ought to be set on "High." Even its location can be in question: some atlases include it in Europe, others in Asia, while its borders with Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran seem to place it in the Near East. Armenia can be a confusing place.
Which is why after reading that the Avan Marak Tsapatagh boutique hotel was located "sixty five kilometers from the Sevan peninsula's hustle and bustle," I wasnt entirely surprised to be driving an hour past Armenias small resort region stopping every twenty minutes to check the gas gauge in the trunk along a road so remote that a service station, a postcard stand, even a peddler hawking cheesy gewgaws would have been welcome. Two hours from Armenias capital city Yerevan, the monumental fieldstone walls of Avan Marak Tsapatagh finally appear against the lonely lakefront. The building itself is perplexing, with its contemporary gables arching against the rough terrain.
This and two more stylish boutique hotels are the idiosyncratic vision of rug manufacturer ×James Tufenkian, a prosperous Los Angeles born Diaspora Armenian, descendent of those who fled the genocide here a century ago. Now six million Armenians live outside the country as opposed to three million inside, their devotion toughened by seventy years of isolationist Soviet rule which made visiting difficult, and a chaotic political transition in the early 1990s that left Armenia bereft of even bare essentials like food and power. 53 year old Tufenkian, who built his successful international enterprise on a combination of business acumen and design savvy, is determined to help rekindle Armenias economy, party through high end tourism, and partly by reviving the artisan skills that withered with industrialization; artistry still visible in richly adorned vintage rugs, elaborate metal work, and feathery carvings in the pastel hued volcanic Tufa stone. Liberated from the high expenses of building in the West, Tufenkian and interior designer Clodagh, known for her spirited Elizabeth Arden spas and celebrity homes, use Armenias Byzantine and medieval architecture as a starting point for their own progressive form.
Yet on a lakefront so isolated a clutch of horses graze undisturbed, the hotels panache - flagstone fireplaces, velvety billiard table, and a sybaritic swimming pool - seems incongruous. Settling into my duplex suite, however, I discover a subtle harmony between the remote environment and these inventive design elements that appear wrested from the earth: closets enclosed by a weathered iron cage, rough stone tabletops, a stairway bordered by stout iron spokes that recalls a medieval dungeon. The heavy metal mood is lightened by organic looking textiles: hand loomed, hand dyed knits artfully wrapped around pillows, couches and beds. The woolens are created for all Tufenkian hotels by a cadre of Knitting Ladies, village elders whose traditional skills have been harnessed by the Tufenkian Foundation, which sponsors dozens of self help projects including a sheep farm where visitors can see carpets and pillow shams on the hoof.
Meals under the cathedral ceilings of the hotels restaurant, Zanazan which means various, to reflect the local multi-dish serving style also draws on tradition with country foods such as matsun, mountain yogurt that can be runny as tart buttermilk or unctuous as crme fraiche; palate teasing rose petal jam which is like eating flowers off the vine; and a treacherous-looking sword piercing the whole crisp skinned Ishkhan lake trout.
Still, for all its avant-garde style, at the time of my visit Avan Marak Tsapatagh had no working phones, fax, or e-mail. Even snaring a cell phone signal in these parts is like catching sunbeams in a jar, and I feel a bit unmoored heading north to Tufenkians hotel Avan Dzoraget in the pine forested Lori, a region which promises moody medieval ruins, untrammeled hiking trails, but little hope of encountering an Internet caf.
The Loris deep mountain valleys create a kaleidoscope of microclimates that wash swiftly from alpine to forest to desert, which according to Jeff Tufenkian, head of the familys Armenian Forests NGO, has spawned one of the most species dense regions on earth, with 100 types of flora and 365 varieties of birds. Jeff has poured his years of eco experience into Adventure Armenia, a guide to 22 day hikes and four rock climbs in Armenias little known back country. One of the most spectacular trails is a four hour walk between two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the 10th century monasteries Haghpat and Sanahin. Its a foggy, muddy, haunting 10 kilometer journey that offers rare glimpses of Armenias usually secluded rural life, such as children honing their hunting skills with slingshots, and villagers baking traditional flatbread, lavash, in underground ovens. In the valley below, hotel Avan Dzoraget rises like an improbable post modern fortress on the banks of the rushing Debed River, filled with fanciful design notions like lamps made of brushed steel wrapped in gauzy wool shades, distressed metal twisted into headboards, desks, even "Do Not Disturb" signs, a round steel sink with whimsical square faucets that tilt on like the cock of a head, and yellow faux leather chairs beside weathered nickel pots and a 200 liter clay butter urn in the lobby. The kitchen puts a sophisticated spin on rustic dishes like yogurt omelets with honey, and crisp lavash pancakes with apricot jam, while just outside the hotels front door villagers fill water pails from a spigot, freshly shorn wool dries on lattices, and chickens scurry across the square. Next year, the eerie underground tunnels of a World War II bomb shelter will be transformed into a wine bar.
So after a stirring but challenging week immersed in peculiar cultural pairings, Im happy to be on the smooth multilane road south to Yerevan, looking forward to the more familiar social arena of caf tables on sidewalks, souvenir stands, even the remote possibility of Broadband. Id forgotten this is a place where the laundry detergent is called Barf.
My fragile taxi needs three running shots to scale the hill at Tufenkians most urban property, Avan Villa, a pink Tufa stone mansion fronted by wrought iron gates. Although the location is a bit inconvenient to Yerevans flaming club scene, where young Armenians kick open cultural doors to the West at raucous rock venues like Stop, the twenty minute taxi ride seems fair trade for my rooms expansive mountain views. This genteel townhouse on the edge of a hardscrabble city evokes Armenias heyday as a prosperous Silk Road trading state with thick carpets, walls lined with rare 19th century flat weave kilims, and elaborate handwork such as knitted bedspreads and museum quality carved walnut furniture casually offered for everyday use. Akin to its sister hotels, Avan Villas manmade opulence is leavened by nature, with glass walls overlooking the open valley and a dining room giving out onto an airy hillside terrace. Still, the hotels greatest extravagance may be the time it lavishes upon each guest, with every cup of inky breakfast coffee individually pressed, tender young walnuts poached for hours until theyre tender as plums, and thoughtful services like the impromptu lift to catch Yerevans sprawling weekend flea market, the Vernissage, which is equal parts cultural roadmap and shoppers Nirvana. I spend two entire days absorbing a bizarre cornucopia of wares ranging from World War II Soviet Agit Prop postcards whose exploding cannons offer "Greetings From the Front," to village style silver belts intricate as metal embroidery, and illuminated manuscripts hand copied in gold leaf by a companionable artist who is happy to share his youthful exploits as a black marketeer.
This is a rare moment to visit Armenia - for those who dont mind quixotic communications and flights landing in the dead of night while the airport is upgraded - before ghostly relics of twelfth century churches become sanitized tourist sites, while stylish hotels still boast of "hot and cold water 24 hours a day," and before Armenia joins the West in becoming rational, sensible, predictable, or the least bit tamed.
Genocide Museum. Photo by Janet Forman
The morning I awoke to find two donkeys gnawing the shoulder high rosemary bush at my cottage door in Tuscany, life atop a crowded North American metropolis began to feel like madness. Inhaling the fruit basket of morning air, I marvel at how these two clever souls have managed to acquire a home surrounded by shimmering grapevines, and dine regularly on gemlike produce and artisan cheese. Even more remarkable, I reflect, is that by arriving in Italy utterly unfettered by planning, I have managed to skid into the same utopia.
Even though a quick Internet search turns up dozens of commodious villas available for week long rental, this approach requires commitment to one place and a congenial crowd capable of advance preparation. But I had resolved that this trip was to be resolutely footloose, a solitary interlude trolling the back roads of Tuscany guided by little more than a seductive memory of makeshift agritourismo signs notices for overnight accommodations on vineyards and farms Id seen on my last trip. Outside the village of San Pancrazio I spot my quarry: a suitably confusing placard pointing down a dubious looking road, indicating rooms at what my limited Italian construes as either: a vineyard, an olive farm, or a home for unwed sheep.
After several miles of ravishing countryside unmarred by directional markers of any sort, when the only thing that keeps me driving down the narrow road is the inability to make a U-turn, a farmhouse engulfed in lavender appears in a clearing. Nothing that looks like an inn of course, but beyond the kitchen door I spy a few rustic-looking wheels of pecorino, compelling enough reason to stop the car and investigate. Also, its the end of the road. Shamelessly stepping through the threshold, I find myself in a simple dairy standing beside a mildly startled young woman in white, who in a few rounds of tourist pantomime communicates that I have stumbled upon the home of Toni Ballarin, cheese maker of Fattoria Corzano e Paterno and proprietor of the promised agritourismo.
Corzano was founded by the Swiss architect Wendelin Gelpke, who was first smitten by the regions dreamy chiaroscuro light in the 1960s when Marchesa Rangoni-Machiavelli, descended from the author of "The Prince," was still clinging to this aging villa and farm. Some of the nearby property had not changed hands in seven hundred years, and Gelpke had to vow he would keep these ancestral lands intact before the dowager would sell. In two generations, Gelpkes family has rekindled the hills into olive groves, vineyards and fecund grazing fields for the Sardinian sheep whose milk Toni Ballarin transforms into pecorinos so popular with local restaurateurs they rarely travel beyond the region.
Tonis initial response to the land was much like Gelpkes: the first time she laid eyes on it and on Gelpkes nephew Aljoscha she vowed never to leave. She was nearly as captivated the first time she saw curds rising from milk boiling over an open kitchen fire, a headily quick transformation compared to the years-long wait for one of their fine bottles of wine. More than two decades and five children later, Tonis face folds into a satisfied smile as she surveys the shelves of her dairy lined with merrily irregular wheels, some produced by design, others by accident. Indeed, the darling of local food cognoscenti is a hapless looking Buccia Di Rospo frogs skin for its lumpy rind which she maintains "first appeared so off I almost threw it to the pigs."
Padding after Toni as she draws sap from fig trees outside the dairy - "a traditional trick to bring the ricotta up," she notes - we thread our way through an untamed hedge of fennel to an isolated cluster of 18th century farm workers buildings. While these dwellings have been meticulously restored with modern plumbing and wide plank floors buffed to a radiant sheen, their former life is recalled in rough whitewashed walls and fireplaces big enough to roast a wild boar. One cottage has been seamlessly divided into four rambling apartments, each with a living room, kitchen and fireplace of its own where five people can comfortably settle in with rounds of thick-crusted Tuscan bread, olives, cheese and wine, all produced nearby. And even though the modest price of around 600 Euros a week would seem to keep these houses filled, we had our pick of accommodations even during popular harvest time, since as at most agritourismos our hosts are focused on farming, and publicizing rental properties is a hit or miss affair.
A few miles away as the crow flies - a few hours away when you factor in getting lost on unmarked roads is one of Toni Ballarins most ardent admirers, chef Marco Stabile of the Castello di Gabbiano wine estate restaurant, Il Cavaliere. Like many native born Tuscans, Stabiles passion for Italys native ingredients leads him to artisan producers like Ballarin and the Martelli family pasta makers in the medieval hill town of Lari. The pace is resolutely slow at the Martelli workshop, where delicate strands of spaghettini and stubby rounds of penne rattle out of machinery that has the unwieldy lines of a mid-century Univac computer. But saving space is not an issue up here in the Tuscan hills, nor thankfully is saving time, as while commercial pasta makers dry their product at high heat for five hours, the Martellis maintain the nutty flavor of the pastas Canadian Durham wheat by drying it for FIFTY hours in archaic wooden cabinets akin to saunas.
Its the kind of perfectionism Stabile demands of his suppliers, as he too is a purist who will accept only FEMALE beef for his tenderly charred Bistecca a la Fiorantina, and the sort of culinary adventurer who feels Gabbianos aged balsamic vinegar is an intoxicating accompaniment to ice cream and fried eggs. The somewhat chauvinistic locals maintain without irony that 31 year old Stabile has the sophistication of a master who has cooked in the worlds great kitchens, even though he has never worked outside of Tuscany, because their region is a culinary Valhalla whose progeny are imprinted as gifted chefs from birth.
This may well be the same genetic code at the source of the Tuscans flawless taste in floor tiles and bathroom fixtures, like those in Castello di Gabbianos jewel box agritourismo carved from a 16th century farmhouse. Isolated atop a winding drive whose tall trees meet like hands in prayer, the cottages floor to ceiling windows are an ideal perch from which to watch vineyard workers pruning grapevines and plucking olives. Indeed, agritourismo residents are welcome to spend the day with vintners creating the estates esteemed Chianti Classico, to set up tastings of the vineyards entire range of wines, or to simply sit at their long farmhouse table and sip them.
An hours drive south, the fertile earth turns red and rocky - crete senese, its called,soil of Siena where the harshness is said to produce explosive flavor as crops struggle to grow. Forty five minutes from the Siena tourist hub is Montalcino, a hill town whose spindly cobblestone streets rush down to the valley from a stoic medieval fort, and where rosemary and caper bushes pry cracks in the town wall. Meandering at its own pace from the 13th century to the 21st, old scores such as the Palio-like competition between town quarters are settled amicably with an archery match these days, and stalls at the Thursday market which spring up along the ramparts offer only locals goods like potted herbs, with the biggest stir created by a Porchetta butcher handing out generous samples of garlicky pork streaming with juice. And even though Montalcino is the birthplace of erudite Brunello wine, its also a town where locals idle at sunny sidewalk tables nibbling hunks of almond studded Panforte or brittle biscuits irreverently known as Dead Mans Bones, with shots of potent midmorning coffee.
Some were concerned when the Mariani family U.S. wine titans who made their fortune introducing Americans to easy drinking Riuniti - cobbled together an estate here nearly the size of Manhattan. But like many urban refugees, the Marianis were charmed by what they found and used their vast holdings to cherry pick prime plots for Brunello and other fine wines, hunkering down to create a Michelin star restaurant from a crumbling Romanesque castle.
Giorgio and Renate Girardi also merged their cosmopolitan tastes with the Tuscan countryside. And even though he wears the stylish clothes and meticulous haircut of an international banker, Girardis forehead bears fewer lines than most men of sixty, and his creative energy is now funneled into refining a few barrels of Brunello aging in the barn. "It was a risk leaving the fast track at age fifty," Renate admits. "At that age we couldnt go back." Indeed, when I ask what lured them, a cavalcade of thoughts seems to reel behind her elegant eyes. But the answer is simple: "We wanted to do something with our hands." So the Girardis focused their business skills into restoring an 18th century farmhouse, planting grapes on a sweet spot in the vineyard and artfully developing one of the worlds most extravagant wines.
And while few proprietors of a modest B&B are more attuned to the expectations of their worldly clientele, the Girardis are also aware that no liveried doorman or Broadband connection can replace the brilliant pastels that saturate the Montalcino hills at sunset, and no frothy sauce can compare with a slab of just baked bread slathered with jam made by Renates mother in the Alto Adige, consumed slowly on a rose framed terrace. Priorities seem to shift in this deeply rural province, and for all who reside here, even temporarily, the urgency of a fax or e-mail or phone call from a colleague fades before the specter of a bottle of well made Brunello sitting hospitably open on the counter.
Tuscany chefs. Photo by Tom Houghton.
I had a love affair in an English garden this spring.
It was a patch of Sweet Purple Peasthat first caught my eye, rising from the earth with the abundance of Eden. Next my fancy fell upon a mandrake bush, medicine chest of the ancients, with pointy leaves that soothe burns, brown roots that induce slumber, and a human shape which sparked the legend that the plant emits a blood curdling scream if pulled from the ground. But in the end I gave my heart to the homely Dwarf French Bean from Brightstone, mottled purple but sturdy and true, whose seeds survived for a century clinging to a shipwreck in murky depths off the Isle of Wight, and still sustained the spirit to bloom again.
Perhaps I was enchanted by this old world flora because I encountered it not just as a casual stroller, but in a far more intimate manner: by consuming it. I first discovered these vegetables at the Dorchester Hotels Grill Room, where a good portion of the produce is from Audley End, a kitchen garden that grows crops as they did in Victorian times. Dorchester chef Henry Brosi has found a stunning disparity between these archaic varieties and even the purest organics: When he prepared the same recipe with Audley End peas and a modern strain, Brosi found Audley peas had such a high starch content they yielded a thick rich stew when the new ones produced a thin soup.
The distinction is so dramatic that Brosi and his Executive Sous Chef, Michael Kean, have committed to using Audley End produce regularly in their hectic kitchen, even though deliveries can be quixotic. "We never know whats going to come in day by day," Kean confesses, "since if the qualitys not right Audley End wont send it." The chefs must also endure a heartbreakingly brief harvest season. "They wont pick a product until its at its peak," Kean explains, "which means well only get strawberries the last week of July, not all of July, August and September as people expect. Its pure market cuisine," he admits, with all of the attendant trials and glories. "There are certainly problems," Kean notes, "especially with appearance. We cant control the shape in which things grow, and diners have a perception of what the perfect food should look like."
Still, Kean sees an astounding difference on the palate. "The flavor of Audley End Runner Beans is so clean and crisp that your mouth erupts with bean flavor at the first taste, not after youve chewed it several times," he observes with pleasure. "Its hugely exciting."
Audley End is one of three display gardens developed by HDRA The Organic Organization, Europes largest organic gardening charity. All are a day trip fromLondon and each has its own persona.
Ryton Organic Gardensin Warwickshire has thirty different areas within ten acres that display the untamed diversity of organic gardening. The most dramatic may be the capricious ParadiseGarden with its wildflower meadow, natural pond and unruly pots of chamomile and thyme. In the Diversity Landscape vegetation is never pruned but encouraged to fight it out for territory. Theres also a garden designed expressly to attract bees, vital to human survival as they pollinate every fourth mouthful of food, and aCooks Garden where part of every plant from elderberry, to nigela, to stinging nettles is edible.
The fourteen plots at Yalding Organic Gardens in Kent roll through history from a medieval monastery garden, to a Tudor Knot Garden where vines are woven like complex textiles, to an early nineteenth century Cottagers Garden - intensive vegetable plots surrounding a brick oven and thatched hut - from an era that lauded self sufficiency, to a Victorian Artisans Garden - the first purely decorative hobby gardens - filled with exotic species unearthed by an idiosyncratic breed of explorers known as Plant Hunters.
Still, the most remarkable may be Audley End in Essex,a restoration of the ten acre kitchen garden that provisioned this stately Jacobean home, as it is not a demonstration plot but an operational garden that supplies a serious restaurant kitchen. In addition, it is managed not just organically but historically, using mainly techniques and products available in Victorian times. This means gardeners do not have the convenience of modern organic methods and must tolerate pests like birds, wasps and bees to keep more damaging species at bay. "Its a delicate balancing act," acknowledges Head Gardener Mike Thurlow. "Were not on a nostalgia trip; this is a working garden. Glamour isnt our buzzword," he maintains. "Heads down, tails up, thats our motto."
While parts of Audley End look like a fairy tale patch with exotica such as tomatoes that resemble red peppers, the medieval skirret - a type of carrot that was a British diet staple in monastic times - and the red flowering Rome apple whose seeds were carried by Roman soldiers, HDRAs most serious mandate here is to preserve genetic diversity. These days, horticulturists tell us, commercial farmers grow only a few marketable varieties, dangerously shrinking the gene pool. But in Victorian times, when gardeners raised countless variations on tomatoes and garden peas, it was unlikely that a change in climate or an insect blight would decimate a whole species. Not only is Audley End a tiny pocket of that genetically abundant universe, but to Mike Thurlow it may also be a key to the future: "If the rest of the world is destroyed we know we would survive," he slyly notes, "since we dont need electricity or refrigeration." An important guide to running this historic garden is an astonishing manuscript that fell into Thurlows hands almost by happenstance: the 1874 diary of William Cresswell, Audley Endsjourneymangardener. In this vivid chronicle entries like, "Smoked greenhouse against flies," bespeaks the Victorian practice of using nicotine as an insecticide, which was probably not as dangerous as their custom of using arsenic for the same purpose, or soaking roots in a mercury based compound to control club root, or coating peas in red lead paint to prevent mice from stealing them after sowing, or using a copper based fungicide to control potato blight.
The diary is also an unblinking witness to the cheerless existence of Victorian era workingmen. Indeed, the book itself is displayed in the gardens bothy, a dank shed with tiny windows parsimonious employers abhorred paying the tax on glass where apprentice gardeners were housed along with crops that ripened in the dark such as mushrooms, chicory and delicate pink stalks of rhubarb. Thurlow tells us gardeners appeared to have little control over their personal lives: Apprentices had to be single as they could be booted out at a moments notice by a jealous head gardener who felt threatened by their growing skills. Master Gardeners, on the other hand, were required to be married, which sometimes meant a promotion and a wedding on the same weekend. But while gardeners ruled their small domain, they were decidedly part of the servant class in strict Victorian hierarchy; expendable souls who could be instantly sacked for fraternizing with house staff, or even for speaking their mind - the reason Cresswell was dismissed after only seven months.
The Audley End mansion is an audacious 17th century prodigy house, a showy type of manor built by status seekers expressly to attract visiting royalty. The estates gently rolling terrain was originally laid out by the celebrated 18th century landscape architect Lancelot Capability Brown. But when his relationship with Audley Ends owner soured upon submitting his astronomical bill, the task of fulfilling the gentrys whims fell to generations of Master Gardeners.
Walking the wide gravel paths, built with ample room to accommodate voluminous Victorian skirts, it becomes clear just how many tricks these gardeners had up their sleeves, and Thurlow is gradually uncovering their secrets. He has restored and retrained the overgrown grape vines in the two hundred year old heated vine house, one of the oldest and largest in England; grapes were especially prized in those days and the best gardeners could provide fresh fruit almost all year. Audley Ends employees were obliged to cultivate flowers tall enough to compliment the mansions twenty foot ceilings, to sustain exotic fruit like pineapples and melons, and to raise delicate strawberries from March until May through the process known as forcing, growing plants outside in pots during the summer then transferring them to a cold greenhouse when the weather turned. Forcing sheds were another Victorian technique: pitch black rooms that grew mushrooms from July to December, and were then used to blanch crops like sea kale and Witloof chicory. Victorian gardeners were also required to grow plants they had never seen when their hedonistic masters returned from holidays with seeds from foreign species like bananas and Cardoon, a wild artichoke native to Mediterranean climes.
Kitchen gardens have a long history in the U.K. In medieval times, when doctors as we know them did not exist, monasteries cultivated Apothecary Gardens filled with plants that did double duty as medicine and food. Yaldings dramatic example has abundant Gooseberry, a digestive aid that makes a suitably astringent sauce for fatty meats like goose; sprawling rosemary bushes, an astoundingly versatile plant that was used not only in medicine and cooking, but was even strewn on floors as a household cleanser; Elecampane, named for Helen of Troy who was out gathering this medicinal when she was kidnapped; and Clary Sage aka the armpit plant. "You be the judge," advises head gardener Nick Robinson, taking a tentative whiff. Yaldings 1950s Victory Garden, with its workmanlike rows of sturdy, belly filling beans and root vegetables free to munch from the stalk in season reveals these gardens were equally crucial during Englands post World War II food shortage.
Kitchen gardens endure in private hands all over the U.K. Near the heart ofBrecon Beacons National Park in Wales, at Felin Fach Griffin, a fashionable inn carved fromthe bones of an ancient pub, owner Charles Inkin has scratched out a good sized patch behind the weathered barn. This stylish 36 year old trendsetter seems as at home kneeling amidst the chard, rocket, B-52 Apples and Welsh onions, as among his chic patrons. "My mother had a kitchen garden," he muses, instinctively pulling a weed. "Thats how we learned about the seasons."
But it was in a wilder corner of Wales, at Maes-y-Neuadd - a 14th century granite and slate manor crouched on a hillside paddock hard by the imposing SnowdoniaMountains - that I found the most masterly kitchen garden. This flower bedecked country house hotel - equal parts opulence and eccentricity, much like Wales itself - has two poetically walled kitchen gardens, strewn with ramshackle farm buildings and a three hundred year old fig tree. Along the verdant rows is dinner on the hoof: red leaf lettuce rising in a "Jack and the Beanstalk" spire, trees bowed with ripening pears, and monster squash spawned by a rich micro-climate created by thick slate walls bellied out to catch every drop of sun. The hotels imaginative chef, Peter Jackson, for many years head of the award winning Welsh Culinary Team, spins his menu around the daily harvest, posted as a handwritten list in the lobby. During my stay there were Bijou, Revolution and Fury Green lettuces, Kestel potatoes, four types of kale and six breeds of tomato including Sweet Million and Tigerella.
Still, my sweetest moment in a kitchen garden was an intensely private one; the morning I crept out of bed at dawn like some naughty Victorian lass to pad down the rocky garden paths. Overcome by the fecund roots and flowers and fruit at my feet, I wasnt satiated by the heady scents alone. So I lowered the branch of an apple tree to purloin a fruit, and pressed my teeth through the tender skin to let sweet nectar stream down my chin. It was a sensuous moment I shall always remember.
English Kitchen Garden. Photo by Janet Forman.
"I came here to be a dreamer," reflects Patrick Robert as we sip fine sherry and nibble hot pan-seared cashews in the drawing room of his manse. Surrounding us are Roberts' stylish creations: rich textiles, a chest made of Betel nut, and gleaming lacquer ware whose patterns are a striking restatement of ancestral motifs from Bagan. His powerful designs have made their mark. Not only do they fill Yangon's twelve Traditions shops and the restaurants and lobbies of the town's fashionable hotels, but Robert is covered regularly in such publications as "Architectural Digest" and receives commissions worldwide.
At first glance, this French expat may seem an anachronism: a successful businessman operating from one of the world's most rigid Communist states. "I stopped in Burma to be alone," Robert recalls with an ironic smile. I spy a faded tattoo peeking from the sleeve of his elegant white shirt; relic of a past life, I presume. "But with the help of my wife, who is from Myanmar's Shan province, I've become an entrepreneur."
Bewitching Myanmar does indeed seem the perfect place to stop and dream. Cut off from the rest of the world by heavy censorship, the country is nearly devoid of communications devices like cell phones and the Internet which the rest of us take for granted. The pace is by necessity, slow. Block out airplanes and cars and the year could be 1930. Even 1860. Few locals wear western clothes. Most are wrapped in the traditional sarong known as a 'longyi,' knotted at the waist like a rose. Street vendors sell snacks of sauteed crickets from wicker baskets as they have for generations, and the night air is cented with ilong-ilong rather than the detritus of civilization. The country once known as Burma has the languorous air of a Kipling novel.
Bagan Movie Banners. Photo by Janet Forman
The year could be 1200, a line of Trappist Monks moving slowly through amber shafts of twilight, the folds of their white robes grazing the ground as they kneel. One Brother leads the call and response in a voice so sweet it hardly sounds human. When his tone drops to a whisper my breathing seems to ruffle the silence. Even as a contemporary non-believer, I am thunder stuck by this show of faith.
These Brothers of Belgium's Westmalle Monastery are members of one of Catholicism's strictest, most secluded sects. Their movement began at the Abbey of Notre Dame de la Trappe in 17th century France as a reaction to what some monks perceived as the rather lax observance of other Cistercians. Vowing to devote their existence solely to finding God, the Trappists spent their days in prayer and manual labor. In early times they even forbade purely intellectual endeavors. Their reforms were so rigorous that these Brothers were called 'The Cistercians of the Most Strict Observance.' In popular parlance they are known as Trappists, for the monastery in which their order was born.
Orval Brewery. Photo by Janet Forman.
Some travelers go to Japan for the cherry blossoms, others for the venerable temples, and more than a few for all the glistening market fresh sushi they can eat. A few style insiders, however, maintain that Tokyo is the best place to sniff out next year's trends, and take the 14-hour plane ride solely to shop. They have plenty of company, for even though the Japanese economy is still less than robust, its fashion ateliers are thronging with customers, spending as if the economic bubble had never burst.
For a shortlist of the hippest Tokyo boutiques, fashionistas follow the Shibuya Girl; she's the one with the parti-colored hair dressed in the look of the moment, which today is the pleated skirt, starched white collar and slouchy sweater of her high school uniform. The Shibuya Girl possesses an exquisitely sensitive style barometer that can gage the instant the pendulum swings from platform shoes to high top sneakers, from toddler-chic Hello Kitty fur purses to pierced tongue punk, or when a surfer's tan had ×best be replaced by Geisha-inspired pallor.
The S-Girl isn't hard to find, as she'll probably be cruising the storefronts with her ×best friend, who might be meticulously attired in 15-centimeter high platform boots with a cowboy hat planted on her platinum wig, the entire ensemble complimented by ghostly white lipstick. She may even have corralled her boyfriend, decked out for the expedition as a stylized rapper in sharply tailored jeans slung low over his slim hips. He will probably nudge the mission closer to Harajuku where the street scene has a harder edge with stores like Nudy Boy and DEPT., and where one window display suggests, "Eat Shit." You'll want to tailgate these fashionable teens closely, as they may be suddenly detoured by street hawkers handing out passes to selective clubs, or duck into one of those devastatingly cool boutiques with a nearly invisible entrance.
Daikanyama. Photo by Janet Forman
This year's fashion grapevine is all about Antwerp. The rush of whimsical collections from its young classically trained designers has made this once staid Belgian city the capital of cool. That's European, ahead-of-the-curve cool, which in certain quarters carries far more weight than the accreditedNew York, London, Paris variety. The buzz started in the late 80's with the appearance of the "Antwerp 6," not a gun-totting outlaw band but a group of freshly minted graduates from Belgium's esteemed Royal Academy of Fine Arts. They rode a minivan into the London fashion shows, rocked the crowds with inventive ensembles and put their hometown on the map.
But if you're contemplating tossing out anything that isn't black, tight or leather before you visit, relax. Antwerp's modest Flemish character is the antipode of attitude-driven Paris and New York. "I find people in Antwerp very cool, but not in love with themselves," affirms Valerie Steele, Director of the museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, who mounted a show on Belgian designers. For Steele, the fashion explosion is a big part of the city's cutting-edge energy. "There's the sense of a young, creative group of people working there who are interesting and hip without being pretentious or stuck up --- which is surprisingly rare," she observes. "Right this second I'm wearing a pair of genuinely strange Jurgi Persoons pants. They have threads hanging off them; theyre full of overstitching and the white applique makes them look like a subway map from outer space. They're totally deranged but completely comfortable, which to me sums up Belgian fashion."
Author wearing jacket from Just In Case.
BEAUTY (USA) "Tony & Tina"
"Here's how we're going to change the world," Tina Bornstein declares with the invincibility of a head of state. Tumbling over one another's words, this voluble 35-year-old New Yorker and her partner, 36-year-old Brit Anthony Gill, zealously describe their plan to use the electromagnetic vibrations of colour to shift global consciousness.
Change the world? Just a minute. These people design make-up.
"We're shameless populists of the concept," Tony confesses at the apparent implausibility. "If there was a platform with a higher profile, we'd take it."
Tobogganing down the Cresta Run makes skydiving look like knitting.
"It's a hell of a feeling," sighs former racecar driver Gunter Sachs, "speed and courage mixed with exuberance."
"It's like flying loop de loops in a plane," avows Raymond McKenzie, a strapping 38-year-old venture capitalist from Barbados. "At some points you think you're airborne."
Champion Cresta rider Giancarlo Pitsch struggles to put the exhilaration of hurtling 1,214 meters down the steep face of a Swiss Alp, careening around ten sharp testing corners on a sternly honed racing sled at speeds topping 85-mph, into physical terms. "You can't imagine that natural forces will make you accelerate that fast. There's no motor, but there's no resistance, either." A slight smile tugs his lips as he calls up the complex sensation. "Once you start down you can't go back. Because of the weather the course is different every day, and in the first ten seconds you have to understand how the ice is going to be. You can actually HEAR whether or not you have grip."
"It's not dangerous if you follow the rules," maintains Cresta Secretary and Chief Executive Lt. Col. Digby J. Willoughby, MC. "However," he considers, "you do have to watch out for the Cresta Kiss. That's when you have a piece of your face torn away. I've actually picked bits of flesh up off the run."
And people do this --- why?
Gunter Sachs at Cresta. Photo by Tom Houghton.
To the ears of an untutored Westerner, the din of the Sabah rainforest is chaotic. But savvy locals can discern each cry with dead reckoning: the screech of the proboscis monkey, the call of the Sunda ground cuckoo --- the trill of a cell phone?
The notion of electronic communication in this remote tract of jungle on the northern tip of Borneo is not as odd as it may seem, as it has been a trading site for more than a thousand years. In the ninth century Sabah shipped camphor wood, cowries, pepper and birds nests to Imperial China. The nineteenth century brought American, German and English merchant-adventurers, as well as out and out pirates. Wood exported from the eastern Sabah city of Sandakan in 1885 was used to build Beijing's Temple of Heaven, and at the height of the timber boom, this now dusty town was said to have the world's greatest concentration of millionaires.
At this point, it would seem that Sabah should be inured to the jabs of immigration and commerce. Indeed, in larger cities like Kota Kinabalu, outside influences are taken in stride. Here it's quite common to see a modestly draped Muslim woman pulling a motorcycle helmet over her headdress, or to observe men in food stalls eating with the right hand as dictated by custom - while pressing a cell phone to their ear with the left. But while the people of Malaysian Borneo have avidly embraced technology of the twenty first century, they are still working to reconcile a modern lifestyle with their closest companion and meal ticket --- the natural world.
Orangutan preserve, Borneo. Photo by Janet Forman.
"The Old Woman and the Fish and Other Magic Tales"
"In Colombia many people have experienced the supernatural," Swedish expat Suzanne Norrthon Marquez notes with a chilling nonchalance. "They've been through so much here. They need the magic."
In Latin American culture, the tangible and the otherworldly seem to mingle as naturally as water and earth. This fluid perception of time and space is the essence of literary genre known as 'magical realism,' and even underlies such prosaic endeavors as building houses and telling time. "The supernatural is so much a part of daily life here, you hear the stories on the Seven O'clock News," Suzanne reveals. Just a few weeks before, this lottery scandal with a paranormal twist was broadcast on every channel:
In a tiny hamlet, newscasters reported, an old woman cut open a fish to find a number inside. The appearance was so astonishing villagers took it as an omen, and everyone in town played that number in the lottery. Astoundingly it won, and each person was entitled to the biggest prize. The lottery company knew that paying the highest winnings to everyone in the village would spell financial ruin, so the firm charged townspeople with fraud. A judge, however, found nothing amiss in the fisherwoman's find, and ruled in favor of the town.
"People used to think Harlem was the dark side of the moon," maintains Raymond DeWees of the Fifth Avenue Seafood and Vegetarian Restaurant, just around the corner from ex-president Clinton's 125th Street office. "But now that vibe is gone. The neighborhood is growing and money is flowing in."
Seafood and Vegetarian Restaurant, just around the corner from ex-president Clinton's office. "But now that vibe is gone. The neighborhood is growing and money is flowing in."
Seafood and Vegetarian Restaurant, just around the corner from ex-president Clinton's office. "But now that vibe is gone. The neighborhood is growing and money is flowing in."
Chic eateries like the New Orleans-style Bayou, young professionals seeking historic homes, even trendy chain stores like Starbucks and The Gap are arriving these days. The mood recalls this neighborhood's heyday of the 1920's when bars, dance halls and music spots made it the pleasure capital of America. Down the street from Clinton's office, the Deco-era jazz cafe, the Lenox Lounge, has emerged from an eight month restoration. On surrounding blocks, Latino and Afro-American rhythms pour onto the streets and freshly painted storefronts are sprouting homegrown arts. "It's a gold mine," declares Londel Davis, owner of the posh Striver's Row eatery, Londel's, "and everyone wants a piece of it."
American Legion Hall underground jazz club, Harlem. Photo by Tom Houghton.