Category Archives: Stuff We Like

Saint Emilion Chronicles #3: les macarons et les cannelés

Stuff We Like!Hello everyone!

This will be my contribution to our ongoing Saint Emilion series. This post is about food, so it naturally belongs to my expertise “department”. ūüôā

So, picture it: Saint Emilion, July 2013. We were sitting in Patrick’s wine store, Stefano’s newest “wine friend” (more on Patrick and his wonderful wine store on Stefano’s future posts in this series) and, of course, we were tasting some wine. Getting slightly drunk and jumping from one subject to another,¬†I ended up talking about food. Patrick asked me how I liked Saint Emilion’s macarons. I thought he was talking about those French round mini-cakes with a creamy filling, that the entire world has learned to know and love (by the way,¬†I talked about “those” macarons on a previous post about Ladur√©e). It turned out I was mistaken, because Saint Emilion’s macarons have nothing to do with those paradisiac sweet sandwiches…

Saint Emilion Macarons

The recipe¬†for Saint Emilion’s macarons was created by the nuns of a religious community founded in 1620. The recipe, which apparently is more secret than that of Coca Cola, has been passed on over the following centuries, eventually ending up in the hands of Madame Blanchez. Today, the only place where your can taste and buy “real” Saint Emilion macarons made according the nuns’ recipe is the Fabrique de Macarons,¬†a store owned by Madame Nadia Fermigier, who is the “successor” of Madame Blanchez. And that store is exactly the place where I was heading to five minutes after Patrick told me the story of Madame Fermigier. ūüôā

The store is small, yet incredibly charming. There was even a video showing how macarons are made. But what really struck me when I first got there was the smell. The smell was so outrageously good and inebriating that I had the impression to have stepped into a magical world where everything is alive. And then I saw them: the famous macarons. How can I describe their taste? That’s a tough one. They are delicious beyond words. Just to give you an idea, they reminded us of Italian amaretti – I beg our French readers not to get mad at me for this comparison! ūüėČ

I searched the Web and I saw that there are some Saint Emilion macaron recipes out there. I doubt that you will find the original one, however. I’m pretty sure Madame Fermigier protects her recipe at all cost and swore all her employees to the utmost secrecy. Anyway, if you decide to go for one of the Internet recipes or you are lucky enough to buy the original macarons from Madame Fermigier, you can either taste these small pieces of heaven by themselves or use them to make¬†a gorgeous chocolate-based dessert known as “Saint-√Čmilion au Chocolat“,¬†the recipe for which has been kindly published by our lovely friend and fellow blogger B on her blog.

Nadia Fermigier's famous pastry shop in Saint Emilion

But this is not all: the other sweet masterpiece that Patrick unveiled to me is the cannelés.

Cannel√©s are little French cakes with a dark, thick caramelized crust and a moist custard inside. There exist a few different legends about their¬†creation. Of course, one of those legends has the nuns of a convent as its main characters – these French nuns were a hell of a baker, I say!!! ūüėȬ†Anyway, the only sure thing is that the recipe was created in the French region of Bordeaux. Indeed, according to some, the Bordeaux winemakers used to clarify their wine with egg whites (Stefano tells me that some still use egg whites as a fining agent today!) and the cannel√©s were created as a way to utilize the egg yolks.

When I was in Madame Fermigier’s store, I bought (for a small fortune, I might add…) the gorgeous copper molds the French bakers use to make cannel√©s. The only thing I’m missing now is the right recipe! ūüėČ I searched the Web and I went through a few of the recipes that¬†I found. However, I would prefer to first try a recipe coming from a “friendly source”. So if any of you, dear readers, has a recipe for cannel√©s and is willing to share it or has already made a post about it, I would love to hear from you! ūüôā

Saint Emilion Cannelé

Well, that’s all for today: I hope you enjoyed this Saint Emilion pastry excursion! Back to you Stefano for the rest of the series and… √† bient√īt!¬† ūüėČ

A Visit to the Greenwich Wine+Food Festival and CTbites Blogger Lounge

Greenwich, CT: The CTbites Blogger Lounge at the Greenwich Wine+Food Festival, with Executive Editor Amy interviewing a guest

Last weekend Francesca and I had been kindly invited to visit the Greenwich 2013 Wine+Food Festival by Amy, the energetic Executive Editor of CTbites.

CTbites is (in their own words) “a web-based community built by and for people who love food in Connecticut“. It was founded in 2009 by Stephanie Webster, CTbites’ Editor in Chief, and it now includes Executive Editor Amy Kundrat, a dozen contributors and thousands of enthusiastic eaters who mostly gravitate in or around Fairfield County, Connecticut.

CTbites’ editors and contributors aim to scout and share with readers new food-related¬†operations (from restaurants to food stores and farmer’s markets) as well as to try and review every restaurant, diner and dive in Fairfield County for their readers’ benefit.

Unfortunately, Francesca could not make it to the Festival due to an event she had to participate in at our daughter’s school, so I “had to” step up to the plate and go visit the Festival by myself. ūüėČ

The Festival took place at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park in Greenwich, CT, a beautiful recreational space overlooking Long Island Sound, and featured more than 130 food or wine exhibitors, most of whom had stands in the large Culinary Village Tent, which was the epicenter of the Festival, while the others were scattered in a few satellite tents focusing on specific themes or showcasing kitchen appliances.

Greenwich, CT: The Maserati tent at the Greenwich Wine+Food Festival

There were however two additional prominent features: one was a local Maserati dealership’s tent, sporting two brand new sports cars, and the other was the CTbites Blogger Lounge: a tent right by the entrance of the Festival where food and wine bloggers could congregate, attend a program featuring interviews of a number of prominent chefs and of course meet the wonderful people behind CTbites.

In this regard, I had the opportunity to talk to Amy and Stephanie and they are both great РI would add unsurprisingly, considering how much they have achieved in a relatively short period of time. As an added bonus, the CTbites Blogger Lounge offered its visitors excellent, creamy espresso (and being Italian, if I say excellent, I think you should trust me!) provided by Espresso NEAT Cafe in Darien, CT. Make sure to check them out if you are in the area.

Greenwich, CT: The CTbites Blogger Lounge at the Greenwich Wine+Food Festival

During my visit, beside of course hanging out in the Blogger Lounge and checking out the Maserati’s ūüėČ I browsed the main tent, mostly focusing on (I bet you guessed) wine. While of course the Festival was mainly a food event and one that mostly targeted consumers (in other words, it was no Vinitaly International or Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri NYC), there were still a few interesting wine tasting opportunities. These are, in a nutshell, those that struck me the most:

Nantucket Vineyard: I had been interested in checking them out for a while, primarily because I love the island. ūüôā The winery was founded in 1981 on Nantucket by Dean and Melissa Long and nowadays it sources most of the grapes they use for making their wines from Yacama Valley in Washington State. I had the opportunity to taste their Chardonnay, which was quite pleasing: lean, citrus-y with hints of grapefruit and only slightly oaked (it ages one year in French oak), which for me is a definite plus. All in all, an easy to drink, refreshing Chardonnay. I also tasted their Sailor’s Delight, a Merlot and Syrah¬†blend that¬†ages for 18 months in French oak. This wine didn’t quite work for me, as I found it quite thin and bland, with red fruit aromas and an acidic edge that in my view threw it a little bit off balance.

USA, Greenwich: The stand of the Nantucket Vineyard, a US wine producer, at the Greenwich Wine + Food Festival

WineWise: this is a wine store that just recently opened in Greenwich¬†and features a whole array of wines, from entry-level ones to top wines that they hold in a dedicated space known as “the vault”. Among other wines, I had the opportunity to taste a very pleasant Martinez Lacuesta Rioja Gran Reserva 2004, with a nice nose of leather, cocoa and cherry, and a nicely balanced structure. The wine¬†retails for $37, which in my view is a bit on the high side for a wine that sure is good, but is in a price range that offers several very solid alternatives to compete with.

USA, Greenwich: WineWise, a Greenwich wine store at the Greenwich Wine + Food Festival

Quintessential Wines: This importer and distributor showcased a selection of wines from their portfolio. I tasted a few, and the one that impressed me most was an organic Matetic Casablanca EQ “Coastal” Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Chile: a great, typical nose for the variety, with intense aromas of grapefruit, citrus, “cat pee” (if you like Sauvignon Blanc, you most likely know what I am talking about) and nettle, with crisp citrus-y and mineral flavors, complemented by a lively acidity. Very pleasant, considering also its appealing $20 price point.

Greenwich, CT: The stand of TMRW, a Canadian icewine importer, at the Greenwich Wine+Food FestivalTMRW: This acronym stands for the quite cheesy name “The Most Romantic Wine“, a collection of VQA Canadian icewines made from selected wineries (Caroline Cellars, Cornerstone and King’s Court) and distributed by Icewines Exclusive.¬†The collection comprises a range of ten different alternatives, varying by grape variety and by originating winery. The wines come in half-bottle size (375 ml) and are made from grapes grown in Canada’s Niagara peninsula (in the province of Ontario) that are hand-harvested at night when the temperatures lower to 18F/-8C or below. I have been able to taste a few, including a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Cabernet Franc and a Vidal, but my personal favorite was the Caroline Cellars Riesling VQA Icewine 2008: liquid gold with intense aromas of peach, dried apricot, white flowers and a touch of tangerine, followed by sweet mouth flavors of dried apricot, pear and hints of honey, counterbalanced however by good acidity that kept the wine alive. To me, it has been a pleasant discovery.

Although there were many more interesting stands and exhibitors at the Festival, it is time to wrap things up: I enjoyed attending the Greenwich 2013 Wine+Food Festival as well as the opportunity to mingle with the CTbites team at their Blogger Lounge – thank you, Amy, for the kind invitation. If you live in or near Fairfield county, consider visiting the Festival next year and by all means if you are not familiar with CTbites yet, check them out online and consider signing up for their newsletter and invites to cool culinary happenings.

Disclaimer: CTbites kindly provided a pass to the Festival. The opinions about the Festival, the exhibitors and CTbites are solely my own.

Saint Emilion Chronicles #2: Collegiate Church & Cloisters

This is the second post in our series about our trip to Saint Emilion (in the Bordeaux wine region of France) and its beautiful surroundings. In case you missed it, you can find the first post (about the town of Saint Emilion) here.

On this post, we will briefly focus on a beautiful church-clositers complex in Saint Emilion: the Collegiate Church (Eglise Collégiale) and its cloisters.

The Collegiate Church is an imposing Romanesque building that was built between the XII and XV centuries and is considered one of the most impressive churches in the Gironde region.

Saint Emilion‚Ä®: the cloister of the Eglise Collegiale

Saint Emilion: 
the stained glass windows of the Eglise Collegiale

Supposedly, Arnaud Guiraud de Cabanac gave impulse to start building the Collegiate Church in 1110, even if the church plans were repeatedly modified over time. While the nave was completed in the XII century, the remainder of the Collegiate Church blends together different styles from the XIII to the XVI century.

The facade and main portal of the Collegiate Church are in a beautiful, sober Romanesque style. In addition, a beautiful XIV century Gothic portal on the left flank of the church provides another entrance from Place Pioceau, on the northern side of the XIV century chancel that houses a magnificent listed organ built in 1892 by Gabriel Cavaillé-Colle and XV century carved stalls.

Saint Emilion: 
The cloister of the Eglise Collegiale

Saint Emilion: 
facade of the Eglise Collegiale (XII-XV century)

Inside the church, the Romanesque nave is adorned with nicely restored XII century wall paintings and amazing Gothic stained glass windows, while the statues of the Apostles on the tympanum were partly destroyed in the XVIII century during the French Revolution.

The Gothic cloisters, which impress the visitor due to their architectural elegance, were built on the southern side of the church during the XIII and XIV century, and remodeled during the XV and XVI century.

Saint Emilion: Statue in the Eglise Collegiale (XII-XV century)

The cloisters were built in the shape of a square, with each of the four covered walkways being 98.5 ft/30 mt long and 14.7 ft/4.5 mt wide: elegant arcades support the inner side of the four walkways, which encase a peaceful garden with a cross in the middle, symbolizing the Eden (or Paradise).

The Collegiate Church once hosted Augustinian canons who stayed in the monastery until the end of the French Revolution.

Sources: Travel France Online and Saint-Emilion.pro.

I hope that you enjoyed this second installment of our virtual trip to Saint Emilion…¬†until the next chapter!

Chronicle of a French Wine Country Trip: Saint Emilion

Saint Emilion‚Ä®: View of the town

Saint Emilion: the bell tower of the Monolithic ChurchFrancesca and I have recently spent a few days in France, at Saint Emilion, in the heart of one of the most renowned among the Bordeaux wine districts and appellations. There we have enjoyed the courteous hospitality of a fellow blogger (more on that later, on a dedicated post), the culture and the beauty of those places, a lot of good food and wine and of course the magic of the Bordeaux wine country and its multitude of Chateaux.

This post is the first in a series that will take you with us, if only virtually, to visit Saint Emilion and its surroundings and discover some of the attractions that such area has to offer.

Saint Emilion: The Monolithic Church and its bell tower

Saint Emilion: 
La Porte de la Cadene (the Door of the Chain)

We will start by showing you the town of Saint Emilion and telling you something about its rich history on this post, then on future posts we will show you one of its churches, we will talk about the wine country and the Saint Emilion wine classification system, we will take you to a beautiful nearby village and to a full-blown visit of our gracious host’s residence, we will make you visit a lively food market, we will take you food and wine shopping in Saint Emilion, and of course we will visit a few Chateaux and talk about their wines… Yes, it will be a fairly extensive trip, but don’t worry, we will take a break here and there with posts on different subjects, but we think it will be worth your time! ūüėČ

Saint Emilion: 
La Maison du Vin and the bell tower of the Monolithic Church

Saint Emilion: The bell tower of the Monolithic Church

Now, without further ado let’s talk a bit about the town of Saint Emilion.

Saint Emilion is a beautiful, elegant small town located in the Libournais area, on the right bank of the Dordogne River, not far from Bordeaux. Saint Emilion’s long history goes back to the Roman times, and precisely to the IV century when the Roman ruler Decimus Magnus Ausonius (after whom the famous Chateau Ausone, one of the four Premier Grand Cru Class√© “A” wineries, was named) erected a property there, where¬†he eventually retired. Incidentally, it was the Romans who got the long-standing Saint Emilion wine tradition started by introducing viticulture to the region.

The beauty of the Saint Emilion landscape and its wine-making history have won the area UNESCO status of World Heritage Site for its being an “outstanding example of an historic vineyard landscape that has survived intact and in activity to the present day”.

Saint Emilion: Les Grandes Murailles (the Big Wall) and the vineyards of Chateau Les Grandes Murailles

Saint Emilion: 
a "tertre" (steep alley) and a pastry shop

Saint Emilion is a town of steep alleys known as “tertres, winding narrow streets, pleasant squares dotted by bistros as well as several food and wine stores, beautiful Medieval buildings and ancient churches built in the yellowish local limestone, and hectares and hectares of lush vineyards.

Probably the focal point of the town revolves around the central¬†Place de l’Eglise Monolithe: this square borrows its name from the homonymous Monolithic Church, the largest underground church in Europe, that was dug out of Saint Emilion’s limestone rock walls by Benedictine monks between the IX and the XII century. The Monolithic Church’s finely sculpted portal dates back to the XIV century and presents scenes inspired by the Last Judgment and the resurrection.

Saint Emilion: 
ancient buildings in town

Saint Emilion: detail of the Place de l'Eglise Monolithe and portal of the Monolithic ChurchUnderneath the Monolithic Church lie the Benedictine catacombs and the Hermitage, an underground cave where Saint Emilion himself (an VIII century Benidctine monk called Emilian, who became the town’s patron saint) is believed to have spent the last years of his life, from 750 to 767. There visitors can see an underground spring that was used for baptismal water, a bed and meditation seat both carved in rock, and graffiti reportedly dating back to the French Revolution. Above the Monolithic Church stands an imposing¬†53 mt/174 ft¬†tall bell tower that was built between the XII and the XV century, while to the side of the church is the XIII century¬†Chapelle de la Trinit√©¬†(Trinity Chapel) hosting well preserved frescoes on the walls of its apse.

Saint Emilion: The Eglise Collegiale and the bell tower of the Monolithic Church

Saint Emilion: La Maison de la Cadene (House of the Chain) and la Porte de la Cadene (Door of the Chain)The inside of the Monolithic Church and the complex comprising the catacombs, the Hermitage and the Trinity Chapel can only be accessed and visited through a guided tour operated by the tourist office and, unfortunately, photography is not permitted anywhere within the complex – so here you will only be able to see images of the outside of the complex.

Other notable monuments in Saint Emilion are the Romanesque Eglise Collegiale (Collegiate Church) and its XIV century cloister (this will be the subject of another post), the complex of the Maison de la Cadene and the Porte de la Cadene (House of the Chain and Door of the Chain) located at the top of a steep tertre and dating back to the XVI century, and Les Grandes Murailles (the Big Wall) which are the last remains of what used to be a XIII century Benedictine monastery that collapsed for the most part and are now immersed in the vineyards of the homonymous Chateau Les Grandes Murailles, one of the 63 Grand Cru Classé wineries in the Saint Emilion wine classification.

Saint Emilion: 
elegant building in Rue des Ecoles

Saint Emilion: the bell tower of the Monolithic ChurchTypical of Saint Emilion are also several pastry shops selling two local specialties: the Macarons (delicious almond-based cookies) and the Canelé (small, chewy sweets with a caramelized sugar outside and a core of rum-infused custard).

Enough for today: I hope you enjoyed this first stop in our Saint Emilion trip and our general overview of the town – stay tuned for the next chapters of our chronicle! ūüôā

Saint Emilion: Restaurant tables at Place de l'Eglise Monolithe

The End of the Quest for Authentic Italian Food: Arthur Avenue

USA, New York
Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The BronxA few Saturdays ago, Francesca and I finally went to check out a place that had been on our minds for a while: famed Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, NY.

Arthur Avenue is first and foremost an Avenue in the Belmont section of the Bronx (near the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden) that was named after President Chester A. Arthur (the 21st President of the United States) in the XIX century.

Around that time, many Italian immigrants settled in the Belmont area and started forming a growing community that endured mostly unchanged¬†to this day. This earned Arthur Avenue the nickname of “the real Little Italy of New York“.

On the Avenue itself as well as on the blocks immediately adjacent to it thrives a host of stores, delis and restaurants all selling scores of authentic Italian food, produce and dishes – everything from great meats and sausages, fresh fish and seafood, delicious cheese (including the best imported mozzarella I have had in the States so far), freshly baked bread, focaccia, biscotti and sweet treats, all kinds of pasta, mouthwatering pizza, you name it…

USA, New York
 Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The BronxUSA, New York 
Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The Bronx

The whole experience is really unique, as many of the store owners or employees still speak Italian and take pride in establishing some kind of personal relationship with their customers. It brings back memories of what happens in the stores of most Italian small towns.

Beside the actual stores that line Arthur Avenue and its cross Streets, the area is also home to the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, an indoor market that was opened in 1940 by New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and that hosts stalls and counters of various butchers, bakers, produce vendors, cheese and cured meat sellers, a souvenir T-shirt store and so on.

The market is also home to an amazing cigar place with a couple of employees who hand roll them right in front of you so you can watch the entire process, from tobacco leaf to the finished product: trust me, even if you are like me and don’t smoke, it is something that is definitely worth watching!

USA, New York
 Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The BronxAnd last but not least, a small beer joint has recently opened inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market: it is called The Bronx Beer Hall and, in a sign-of-the-time melting pot spirit, it is run by two brothers of Puerto Rican heritage who serve beer made by microbreweries from the Bronx and elsewhere in New York State.

USA, New York
 Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The BronxUSA, New York
Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The BronxDespite the strong Italian roots of the place, Arthur Avenue shows a few signs of a growing multi-ethnic footprint, as shown by murals and the mere observation of the ethnic mix of the residents.

So, if you live in or near The Big Apple or if you happen to visit and you enjoy authentic Italian food in a characteristic environment, consider stopping by Arthur Avenue and doing some food shopping or dining there!

Below you can find a few additional images from our outing in the Bronx.

PS: Happy Memorial Day, everyone! ūüôā

USA, New York
Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The Bronx

USA, New York
Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The Bronx

USA, New York
Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The Bronx

USA, New York‚Ä® Arthur Avenue, AKA "Little Italy" in The Bronx

Mother’s Day and a double gift: Coco and B!

Justine Picardie's "Coco Chanel - The Legend and the Life"I know what your are thinking. Where is the food? Sorry to disappoint you, but no special dish for this occasion! Mother’s Day is a holiday that I take very seriously, which means that my family knows that I will not even put the kettle on the stove. Plus, my mom is in Rome so there will be nobody in my home who¬†should be celebrated but me. It will be all about me! ūüėČ

I thought this would be an ideal occasion to share a book with you that can be a perfect gift for any mom who is into fashion and wants to know more about the most iconic female figure in fashion of all times. Of course, I’m talking about Coco Chanel and the book is “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life” by Justine Picardie.

I simply loved this book along with the pictures and the illustrations, but my review stops here. Why? Because I cannot take any credit for “discovering” it. I bought the book after reading a post by B¬†over at¬†Just Add Attitude (and here it is my second gift for you all ūüėČ ). If you want to know more about the book, just pay a visit to B’s blog and enjoy her lovely review as well as all her other posts about the fashion guru.

Stuff We Like!Back to B and her blog: I don’t know much about B… not even her full name ūüôā but you do not have to know someone’s life, death and miracles (as the Italian saying goes) to appreciate her or him.

B is one of the most gracious bloggers out there. When you read her posts and her comments, you have the impression that she is right there with you. By following her blog, you will be taken by hand to an amazing journey through her beloved Dublin and Ireland in general. She will unveil for your all the secrets of her country, from monuments, to exhibitions, museums, workshops, restaurants, cafes, stores and farmhouses. I wish I had known B years ago when I managed to spend a month in Dublin! It would have been great to be showed around by her.

But that’s not all. Through her blog and her impeccable taste, B will also share her thoughts with you about food, style, shopping, life in general as well as picks¬†from her two favorite cities (Paris and London – by the way, not too shabby a choice, B, if you ask me!).

So make yourself a favor: as soon as you have a moment, check Just Add Attitude out. You can thank me later. ūüėČ

I wish you all a very happy Mother’s Day. As to me, someone in my family who is not too old and not very good at keeping secrets already told me that breakfast in bed seems to¬†be¬†in my cards for that day: yay!¬†ūüėČ

What happened to fairy tales? A review of "The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm"

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers GrimmReading has been one of my greatest passions my entire life. I love everything about books. To be completely honest, I do have a sort of fetish obsession with books as objects. I love their shapes and the shivering feeling that certain covers can give me. I look forward to starting a new book waiting, with trepidation, to find out what kind of world that particular book is going to unveil to me. If I see a damaged book or whose pages have been torn or¬†dogeared, I feel a physical pain and I end up wondering what kind of human being is capable to “treat” a book like that.¬†ūüėČ I have the utmost respect for books and I think they should be treated as very precious items.

As a parent, I think it is my duty and my privilege to teach my daughter the importance and the beauty of reading and how books make you learn and understand many things and, therefore, ultimately make you a better person. Fortunately, my daughter loves reading and reading has become an integral part of our daily routine Рplus, I do not recall a time when I said no to my daughter asking me to buy her a book.

Having said that, you can now understand my happiness when I came across “The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm”. The purple cover along with the lovely illustration of Sleeping Beauty can by themselves give you a taste of the magic and the beauty that the book contains: it is an amazing collection of twenty-seven of the most enchanting Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales brought together to celebrate their 200th anniversary. There are the most famous fairy tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, all “restored” to their original version, as well as lesser-known but, certainly, not less magical tales such as The Golden Goose and The Fisherman and His Wife.

The tales are accompanied by superb vintage illustrations made by important visual artists¬†from the 1820s all the way up to the 1950s. They are so beautiful and unique –¬†the kind of artwork that any mother dreams to decorate her daughter’s bedroom with.

From The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: Snow WhiteDuring the last few years, we have been watching adaptations of The Prince Frog and Rapunzel that went so far from the original version that I’m pretty sure the poor Brothers Grimm could not help but turn in their graves. The female heroines are pictured as some sort of warriors who want to be always in control and believe they know everything but have nothing of the grace and the magic of the original princesses. They are so strong-willed and stubborn that they would emasculate the strongest of the princes!

Do not get me wrong: I do think that women should be strong, independent and self-sufficient, but I am a firm believer that, at least in fairy tales, it is the prince that should fight the dragon and the princess the one who must be rescued. After all, deep inside, isn’t that what every woman dreams of when she is a little girl and, maybe, even afterwards? I really thought it was time to find the flavor of the ancient tales once again and that’s exactly what this book will do for a little girl: open the door to a lost yet enchanting world whose memories will accompany her during the life journey.

Stuff We Like!This is a perfect book for your daughter, niece, granddaughter, your best friend’s child and for any other girl who is willing to dream. However, be mindful that the fairy tales in the book are the original version that was written by the Brothers Grimm, which departs from the milder¬†“Disney-format” adaptations that we are all used to and may therefore make them more suitable for older children who have the maturity to elaborate their contents and put them into context.

I hope you will enjoy it as much as my daughter and I are!

Have a wonderful week.

A Food Photography Primer

Over time, a few readers of this blog who seem to have been enjoying my food images have been asking that I write a post with a few pointers about food photography: today is the day for that. Bear in mind that what follows is not intended to be a comprehensive course on food photography, but just a reflection on some basic rules of photography that play an important role in making a good food photograph.

There is no magic, food is just one of the subjects of studio photography and food photography is still photography, so the same basic principles apply. As such, there are three main guiding criteria that everyone with an interest in food photography should focus on:

1. Composition
2. Lighting
3. Post-Processing

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

1. Composition

Composition is an element that can literally make or break a photograph. A successful image, including one of a food item, needs to have a strong, clean, balanced composition or it will look flat and boring at best. Here are a few pointers as to how to tackle this aspect:

  • Devise a plan¬†before¬†your shoot: pre-visualize how you would like your image to look like and figure out what you need to accomplish your vision (in terms of props, lighting, background and focal length of your lens)
  • Set up well ahead of time, when you have no time pressure: the shoot should be set up according to your plan and your vision, with everything in place except the food you are going to photograph. Take a few test shots in the same light that you would use for the real thing and see how your image looks like through the lens you chose. Use this opportunity to find out what does not work and to move things around or change camera/lighting settings until you achieve a pleasing composition that conveys your vision. Add the actual food item to be photographed only when you are all set and ready to go, so when you photograph it, it is going to be perfectly fresh, in top condition
  • Although composition is subjective and should convey¬†your own¬†vision, there are a few¬†“rules” that will generally make your image a stronger one, including the following:
    • Less is more: keep your composition clean and simple;
    • Compose in such a way that the main subject of your image is¬†immediately obvious¬†to everyone;
    • Avoid blank space near the edges¬†of your frame: make sure that your subject and other meaningful elements of your composition fill the frame in a balanced and pleasing way, making sure that you have a strong foreground, middle ground and background in your image;
    • Very rarely does a subject that is in the smack center of your image look good (unless you are going for an extreme close-up where your subject fills the entire frame): try to create some more dynamism by for instance resorting to the¬†rule of thirds, that is placing your main subject off center, near one of the corners of your frame, or positioning important elements in the frame along an imaginary diagonal line;
    • Know your camera’s commands well and¬†select a focal length and an aperture¬†suitable for what you are trying to accomplish: do you want to achieve a compressed look with quite shallow a depth of field? Select a telephoto lens. Do you want to place a strong subject in the immediate foreground in the context of a wider scene with greater depth of field and a clearer sense of depth? Go for a wide angle lens. Do you want more depth of field? Select a smaller aperture (bigger f/stop number). Do you want only a narrow area in your image to be in sharp focus with the remainder being rendered as a soft blur? Pick a large aperture (smaller f/stop number). Every tool (i.e., your lenses) should be used for the purpose it is intended for and ultimately to realize your vision.

2. Lighting

Lighting is the essence of photography¬†(the very word “photography” comes from Greek and means “writing with light“) and yet it is an often overlooked component in a photograph. Almost never will a photograph taken in bad light look good. Once again, here are a few things to bear in mind while you are planning for your shoot:

  • If you want to photograph using¬†natural light,¬†never¬†set up in direct sunlight (you would end up with harsh, unattractive contrast) – prefer the light of an overcast day or light coming from a northern facing window or skylight, but be prepared to supplement it with some extra light source so as to avoid that the image looks too flat – also, be ready to use a tripod (especially if youintend to use a smaller aperture) as your shutter speed will likely be fairly slow, unless you crank up the ISO which however may end up in a noisy (as in, grainy) image
  • Stay away at all costs from your camera’s pop-up flash¬†and never place a flash head directly onto your camera’s hot shoe as this arrangement would give you flat, unattractive front light: remember, photography (like painting) is the art of creating the illusion of a 3D object in a 2D medium, and the key to achieve that is creating visible, pleasing shadows in your image
  • In order to create visible shadows you need to ensure that your main light source (AKA your key light) is¬†off axis with your camera: side lighting and backlighting are both effective ways to create shadows
  • Generally, in food photography you want to achieve soft shadows and stay away from harsh, unpleasant shadows. The way to do this is to use a¬†large light source¬†or, if you don’t have one, to make your light source as big as you can: remember, the bigger the light source, the softer the shadows it will cast. This is why photographing food (or making people portraits) in natural light on an overcast day is something appropriate: thanks to the cloud cover, the sky turns into a gigantic source of diffused, soft light. In the studio, soft light can be achieved in several ways: by using a light modifier, such as a soft box (essentially, a big diffuser) or an umbrella (a reflector) or (assuming you have white walls and ceiling) by bouncing the light of your flash head off a wall or the ceiling
  • If you need to open up a bit the shadows that you have created, so as to reduce the contrast and provide more detail in the parts of your image that are in the shadow, you should¬†use a fill light, which is another light source coming from a different direction and with a lesser intensity than your key light (you don’t want to obliterate your shadows altogether, you only want to make them lighter): a second flash head at a weaker setting or a reflector that bounces some of the light coming from your key light back into the scene¬†are both good solutions to achieve this (tip: some¬†aluminum kitchen foil¬†crumbled and then flattened out works fairly well as an improvised silver reflector)

3. Post-Processing

Neither in the “good ol’ days” of film-based photography nor in nowadays digital photography world will a great image come straight out of the camera. While the old GIGO rule still applies (Garbage In, Garbage Out – meaning, if you start out with a bad image, it will be very difficult that you may turn it into a good one in post-processing alone), even a very solid image out of the camera¬†will require some extent of post processing¬†to become a great photograph. A few tips:

  • Shoot RAW, not Jpeg: by shooting RAW you will retain the maximum flexibility on your files and will not have to live with choices irreversibly made by the camera – the possibility of changing your white balance into whatever light temperature you desire is by itself totally worth the choice of shooting RAW instead of Jpeg
  • Learn how to use at least the basic features of Photoshop¬†(or whatever other image editing software of your choice): at a minimum, learn how to crop your image (should you need to); how to work with levels and curves and with the dodge/burn tool to control contrast and exposure; how to use the saturation and color balance commands to control color; how to effectively sharpen an image; and finally how to work with layers so every change you make can be reversed at a later time if need be
  • Generally,¬†be subtle with your changes¬†and only aim them at optimizing your image so as to extract all of its potential from that digital file and turn a good image into a great one.

That’s it! I hope the above may be of help or inspiration to some of you to push the envelope a little bit and try to apply all or some of the above tips to¬†your own¬†food photography and see what comes out of it. And especially, have fun in the process and experiment!

If you are interested in seeing more of my food images, feel free to check out my photography Web site.

Ladurée: a world of beauty beyond macarons

Stuff We Like!

This is my first post of our new column so I decided to start in style.

Ladur√©e… the echo of this brand is called¬†luxury. Of course, I’m talking about the worldwide known French¬†p√Ętisserie maison¬†founded by the miller, Louis Ernest¬†Ladur√©e, in Paris at the end of the 19th century. I’m sure all of you are more than familiar with¬†les macarons,¬†Ladur√©e’s most famous creation: those small, round mini cakes, crisp on the outside, with a smooth filling in the middle, that can satisfy even the more sophisticated palate. When you buy a box of those sweet masterpieces, you are buying much more than dessert. You are buying an icon. Let me tell you a story to prove my point.

As Sophia from the Golden Girls (the famous American sitcom of the ’80s) would say, picture it: London, a few years ago. I was with one of my clients. He was the perfect incarnation of the type of clients I was dealing with back then: highly educated, rich (which didn’t necessarily mean sophisticated),¬†exclusively¬†capable of talking about money and dreaming about more money and totally¬†used to getting whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to. He had been invited to a dinner party by the wife of a gentleman he was anxious to make a deal with and he was determined to impress the hostess. Sure, he could have brought an expensive bottle of wine or champagne but, let’s be honest, this is a gift that would be more appropriate for a host rather than a hostess and he was a huge believer in the saying that “behind every successful man there is always a woman”. Can you prove him wrong? ūüėČ

Anyway, he dragged me into one of the¬†Ladur√©e stores in London¬†where we waited for quite a while (it was Friday late¬†afternoon¬†and the store was very busy) before reaching the most beautiful and chic pastry counter I have ever seen. Obviously, my client knew exactly what he wanted (those kind of men always know what they want!) He picked a huge green box,¬†gorgeously decorated, and selected the macarons that would determine his destiny,¬†flavor by flavor. As we were leaving the store, I noticed that the people with the unmistakable¬†Ladur√©e green bag were as thrilled as those people who carry the equally unmistakable Tiffany’s blue bag. Their face was saying “I bought something very, very special and I feel great about it”. Needless to say, a few days later my client called me to tell me that he had made the deal and it was time to get to work.

Display of Ladurée books

What I didn’t know back then is that¬†Ladur√©e is much more than¬†macarons. Beside the legendary sweets (cakes, pastries and chocolates), they have the cutest shopping bags, one of the most elegant beauty collections, a candle collection to die for, a home fragrance collection I can’t wait to try and… books. Well,¬†Ladur√©e books are really the subject matter of this post. I know it took me quite a while to get to the point, but here we are.

Ladur√©e books are not regular books. When you see the¬†marvelous powder pastel boxes these books come in, you know that you are in for something special. You stand there in astonishment and just the boxes can send shivers down your spine. ūüôā Then you open the boxes and, through the tissue paper that wraps all¬†Ladur√©e¬†books, you sense the luxury and the richness of the covers. When you finally pull yourself together, get the books in your hands and start flipping through them, you are instantly in heaven.

The two must-have Ladurée recipe books are Sucré (Dolce in the Italian version) and Salé (Savory in the English version).

Ladurée's Sucré and Salé

Sucr√©¬†unveils the pastry secrets of¬†Ladur√©e¬†Chef¬†P√Ętissier, Philippe Andrieu, from the¬†financiers¬†to the rose cream¬†bign√©, the cr√®me br√Ľl√©e, the¬†√©clairs¬†and… les macarons,¬†bien s√Ľr, in all their flavors: incredible recipes presented with an impeccable¬†food styling and¬†exquisite photography. The book also¬†contains the indispensable basic pastry recipes,¬†i.e., those recipes that any baker or pastry chef should perfectly master before daring call themselves as such.

Salé is the cooking gem of Ladurée Chef de Cuisine Michel Lerouet and the natural evolution of Sucré because most of the recipes represent the perfect marriage of sweet and savory in the French gastronomy. The book is divided by occasion: brunch, picnic, lunch, formal and informal dinner. Every occasion is an apotheosis of colors and flavors, from sandwiches to salads, soups, eggs, as well as meat, fish and seafood appetizers and main courses, all immortalized by lovely photographs. Not to mention that lots of the recipes are accompanied by tips of Monsieur le Chef, which is something that makes those recipes even more precious.

If¬†Sucr√©¬†and¬†Sal√©¬†are books that I think every cook on the planet should own ;-),¬†l’Art de recevoir¬†is a book that anyone, I repeat, anyone should have unless, of course, they live on a deserted island! Once again the book is divided by occasion: ten moments of the day (from breakfasts to family lunches, picnics, afternoon teas, buffet dinners and formal dinners) for¬†which¬†la Maison¬†offers¬†menu ideas and stylish recipes (with the¬†essential chef’s tips), advice and suggestions on how to create elegant table settings and decorations as well as flower arrangements and, last but certainly not least, mini-lessons of¬†savoir-faire. Every page of this book exudes French elegance and style. The china, the glassware, the silverware, the tablecloths, every decorative object used in the settings are stunning and captured by gorgeous photographs. As the book says, “Tr√®s chic,¬†Tr√®s¬†Ladur√©e“.

Ladurée's L'Art de recevoir

I suggest you put¬†l’Art de recevoir¬†on your wish list keeping also in mind that this book is the perfect gift for anyone, including those not so crazy about cooking, because everyone aspires to be the perfect host or the perfect hostess and I think no one can resist¬†Ladur√©e’s¬†allure.

Unfortunately for my American friends, the one and only¬†Ladur√©e store in the United States is in New York – where else could it be? ūüėČ However, if you do not live in the city that never sleeps or close by, do not despair: you can still buy these wonders online on amazon. On the other hand, if you live in the City or you happen to be there, make sure to make time to stop by their store on Madison Avenue (again, where else could Ladur√©e’s store be but the most chic of Manhattan’s Avenues?) because when you push the door it’s like¬†teleportation: in an instant you’ll find yourself in Paris! Is there anything better than that?

√Ä bient√īt, mes amis!

PS: do you like my new flower glasses icon for this column? Isn’t that gorgeous? This new icon as well as all the illustrations on Flora’s Table are the artwork of our super talented friend, Alexandra Dichne. Alexandra is in the process of finalizing her soon-to-be launched blog. Of course, I will write a post about it as soon as her blog goes live, so stay tuned!

Clicks & Corks: the blogosphere keeps growing…

FrancescaHi Everyone!
Hope everyone on the East Coast is safe and warm. As far as we are concerned, Stefano has been shoveling a lot of snow yesterday…
Let me immediately say that this is not a proper post, but rather sort of an announcement. It will be very short and totally harmless, though ūüėČ
Stefano has decided to also “fly solo” and has opened another blog! The name of his blog is Clicks & Corks. Any idea what his blog is all about? Anyone?… ūüėČ
Well, it’s a blog about light and shadow and the obsession which any photographer has to live with: capturing the right moment.
His blog is also about his other passion. No, it’s not me because it is something that gets better with aging ūüėČ
Yeah, you got it: wine, that magic, delicious liquid that seems to cure it all. ūüôā
Just to be clear: this does not mean that Flora’s Table will lose its wine section. All the wine pairing recommendation will keep being published on Flora’s Table only and all the other wine-related posts (wine education, wine reviews and wine-related events) will be published both on Flora’s Table and Clicks & Corks.
Now, I won’t keep rambling on listing all the wonderful reasons why you should go check his blog out.¬†In light of the”nature” of our relationship, it would not be appropriate and, if you know me, you would think that an alien took control of myself…
Well, whenever you have some time to spare, please go check it out and if you like what you see, do whatever you feel like doing (follow, like, ¬†leave a comment or… none of the above!)
Have a wonderful Sunday!