Tag Archives: book

Portrait of a lady: Marella Agnelli – The Last Swan

Marella Agnelli - The Last Swan

Lately Stefano has been traveling a lot for work and, as a result, I have been cooking much less. No complaint there because I have had more time to dedicate to one of my passions: books. Right now, I’m devouring the four books of “The Brilliant Friend” series written by the extraordinary Italian author Elena Ferrante (this is a pen name – we don’t even know whether the writer is a woman or a man). The series is about the lives and the beautiful and yet very complicated 60-year long friendship of two women who were born and raised in a poor neighborhood in the Neapolitan suburbs. These books are one of the best things I have laid my hands and eyes on in the last couple of years and I loved every hour spent reading them. However, lately I have also been spending a lot of time in the company of another very special Italian woman: Marella Agnelli.

The Agnellis are for Italians by and large what the Kennedys are for Americans. One of the richest and most powerful Italian families living a life that not even celebrities will ever experience because – let’s be honest here – there is a huge difference between making money and be born and raised in a family that made and still makes history. Unfortunately, as was the case for the Kennedys, the Agnelli’s fairy tale has been spoiled and its members have been scarred by gossip, scandals and tragic and painful events. Doesn’t that invariably happen?

Gianni Agnelli was the head of the family. Known as the “Avvocato” (which means “the Lawyer”, although the nickname was largely inaccurate as he had graduated out of law school but had never taken the bar exam), he was a tycoon and the largest shareholder of the worldwide known car maker FIAT. Marella was his wife and now his widow (he died of cancer in 2003).

Born Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, she was the daughter of the Neapolitan Prince and diplomat Filippo Caracciolo and the American cosmopolitan Margaret Clarke. Before becoming an Agnelli, she was an art student in Paris, a model in New York working with the famous photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, a photographer herself and a Condé Nast contributor. She has been immortalized by the most celebrated photographers of the last decades – Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Robert Doisneau, who was sent by Vogue to take the photos of her wedding. – She was an icon of style and elegance and all the designers wanted her to wear their creations: her wedding dress was a Balenciaga, just to name one.

Marella Agnelli - The Last SwanThe book “Marella Agnelli: Ho coltivato il mio giardino” is the latest accomplishment of Marella and her niece Marella Caracciolo Chia. The English title of the book “Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan” makes reference to Marella’s neck as captured in her iconic portrait by Richard Avedon. Funny enough, also Truman Capote, once one of her best friends, used to include her in his famous circles of “swans”, stylish and wealthy women he loved so much to hang out with.

The book is so much more than a beautiful collection of photographs of Marella’s residences and gardens in Italy (Turin, Milan and Rome), France, Switzerland, New York and Morocco. It is so much more than a glimpse at a lifestyle which is simply unattainable by mere mortals. Marella, with her simple and yet elegant prose, takes the reader by the hand and brings her into her own life, rooms and memories, from her childhood in Florence to the marriage with Gianni, from her friendships with legendary characters (John and Jacqueline Kennedy and Truman Capote, just to name a few) to her interactions with some of the most famous architects, interior decorators and landscapers of the century (Stephane Boudin, Russel Page, Gae Aulenti, Renzo Mongiardino, Peter Marino and Madison Cox, just to name a few) who helped her realize her vision.

That’s right! Her vision! Marella and Gianni were avid and eclectic art collectors of the greatest masters and every room of their residences has been furnished and decorated having a masterpiece and its distinctive colors in mind as a starting and focal point of the whole room, thus achieving the result of making that particular work of art stand out even more, if at all possible. She even designed some unbelievably beautiful fabrics and wallpapers to surround and enhance their amazing artwork. And she is the only one in my book who has decorated all her residences with some wicker furniture and succeeded in making it look effortless and elegant at the same time.

Her gardens are enchanted to say the least, but not in any artificial way. She has always respected the natural beauty of the places and worked with those plants and flowers that would be more congenial to the local landscapes. Some of her green creations are “manicured” in an extraordinary way so as to look totally natural. She even managed to build a swimming pool whose colors are those of the surrounding trees: a dream come true!

Marella Agnelli - The Last Swan

Although the book starts from her childhood and ends with the photographs of her beloved Marrakesh home, where she has been spending most of her time now that she is in her eighties and where her beloved granddaughter Ginevra got married, the book is not a biography – at least not in the strict meaning of the term. Sure, her life is the subtle common thread to all the chapters (which are divided by decades), but she does not reveal anything about her most intimate self. Her disappointments and sufferings are just briefly touched upon, without going into any detail. Her gardens and homes along with the interactions with those who collaborated with her to create those beauties are the central theme of the book and every room, garden, vision and project is described simply and concisely without any triviality or show off to impress the reader. She doesn’t want that. She doesn’t need that. She is a princess – a real one, and she knows that. Everybody with taste knows that.

This book is a little treasure and I enjoyed it immensely. If you have a special person in your life, someone who is chic and sophisticated, who is in love with beauty, art, elegance and understatement and who has the sensibility to appreciate a book like this one, The Last Swan is the perfect gift and a great way to say “I think you are special” to that person!

I wish you all a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!

Francesca Xx

PS: Of course, The Last Swan was a gift from the most elegant woman I have ever met… my mother! 😋

When knowledge turns into style: Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

With Thanksgiving come and gone and the countdown to Christmas already started, it’s time to finalize our wish and gift lists. Well, let me help you with your gift list by suggesting an idea that, hopefully, will make one or more of the people receiving your presents very, very happy.

There are some people whose sense of style and sophistication are so classy and unique that buying a gift for them can turn into being quite a challenge. If one of these people happen to be in your life as a parent, sibling, significant other or friend, the “Encyclopedia of the Exquisite” is the book for them.

Stuff We Like!Written by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins (she was the European editor of W in Paris and she has written for Vogue), the “Encyclopedia of the Exquisite” is an eclectic compendium of historical facts and curiosities about a variety of objects, concepts and expressions that are part of our daily language and use. The book is designed to satisfy the thirst for knowledge of any person of any age and taste, no matter what their interests and hobbies are.

If cooking and drinking are their life passions, the readers will learn about ingredients and dishes such as saffron, truffles, the bon chrétien pear (generally known as the Williams or the Bartlett pear), the omelette (including Julia Child’s suggestions as to how to make the perfect omelet) as well as the history of two of the most beloved drinks: champagne and tea (including tea-making tips). The readers will even find a few lovely recipes to try out and amuse themselves with.

If fashion and beauty are the readers’ kind of poison, they will fall in love with the sections about the sequin, the frilly lingerie, the gloves, the heels, the faux jewels, the kimono, the color black, the bob haircut and the pouf hairstyle, the perfume and the red lipstick.

Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

But that’s not all! Once upon the time there was a little girl whose favorite animal was the unicorn? Well, look under the letter “U”! That section has been written for that dreaming grown-up girl. And forget Stefano when he says that he would be curious to hear what our friend and brilliant psychologist, symbologist and writer Klausbernd V. (please check his wonderful blog out, if you do not follow him already) would have to say about that! 😉

How about the expression “Shabby Chic”? I would challenge most of the people I know who like to use that expression to explain its origin to me!!! 😉 Well, a quick look under the letter “S” will unravel the mystery…

There is so much more in this book! The illustrations are simply exquisite and every page exudes elegance. Going through the Encyclopedia, readers will surely appreciate the effort that the author put into researching the topics and writing in such a way that keeps them always interested and amused.

What do they say about style? You either got it or you don’t.

Well, I think that’s true! Style cannot be taught. But, in my opinion, just “having it” is not enough. In order to blossom, the sense of style must be constantly educated and reading is one of the best ways to achieve the result.

Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

I was a lucky girl in many respects. One of these was to have a very classy mother. Anyone who knows her can vouch for that. I wish I had half the style she has! Anyway, since I was a little girl, she has been teaching me good manners, what to wear for every single occasion, which utensils to use for every dish, how to pick flowers and set a table, what should be expected of a gracious hostess and how to thank for hospitality. Still, the Encyclopedia of the Exquisite has unveiled to me countless facts and secrets about things and lifestyles that I thought I knew everything about… but didn’t! 

I’ll finish this post with a quote by the author: “beauty can be found in the most unlikely places […] and […] luxury doesn’t mean spending lots of money.” Very true, if you ask me.

If you give this book as a present to that special someone, that’s exactly what you are giving her or him for Christmas: beauty and luxury at just the price of a book.

P.S.: Needless to say, my mother bought me the Encyclopedia of the Exquisite! 🙂

New Resource: The Grape Variety Archive

Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012

I would like to share with you all a pretty cool new wine-related resource that just recently went live on this blog and on Clicks & Corks: I am talking about a new page called Grape Variety Archive that combines alphabetically, in one centralized spot, all the information about the grape varieties of the wines that I have reviewed, so that such information may be easily referred to by readers.

What’s even better is that all of the grape variety information on the Grape Variety Archive has been taken from the wonderfully educational, gorgeously illustrated and scientifically researched volume “Wine Grapesauthored by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012. Wine Grapes is an impressive 1,242 page long collection of detailed and up to date information about 1,368 vine varieties from all over the world. Quoting directly from the Web site dedicated to the book:

Where do wine grapes come from and how are vine varieties related to each other? What is the historical background of each grape variety? Where are they grown? What sort of wines do they make? Using the most cutting-edge DNA analysis and detailing almost 1,400 distinct grape varieties, as well as myriad correct (and incorrect) synonyms, this particularly beautiful book examines viticulture, grapes and wine as never before. Here is a complete, alphabetically presented profile of all grape varieties relevant to today’s wine lover.

I don’t think I need to say much about the authors, as if you are into wine they are all very well known, but just in case: Jancis Robinson has been a wine writer since 1975 and the Financial Times’s wine correspondent since 1989. Her principal occupation now is taking care of her own Web site, JancisRobinson.com, which gets updated daily. Julia Harding is a linguist, an editor and a qualified Master of Wine. She is Jancis Robinson’s full-time assistant and “associate palate”. Dr José Vouillamoz is a Swiss botanist and grape geneticist of international repute. He was trained in grape DNA profiling and parentage analyses in the world-famous laboratory of Professor Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis.

And speaking of the authors, I wish to take the opportunity to sincerely thank them for being so kind and generous as to grant me permission to pull together and publish the Grape Variety Archive page, which I think can become over time a great resource for gaining a quick snapshot of the various varieties that make up the wines that I review on this blog, beside giving readers an idea of the amazing wealth of information that can be found in Wine Grapes.

Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012

If you read this and are seriously into wine, I think you should definitely consider acquiring Wine Grapes as it will provide a ton of invaluable information about everything that you may want to know about grape varieties. Besides, let me tell you: Dr Vouillamoz’s DNA profiling work about all the grape varieties in the book is nothing short of unbelievable and well worth the price of the book in and of itself!

Please check our new page out and let me know what you think!

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! 😉

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 😉 ). 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 🙂 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. 😉

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! 😉

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. 😉 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 – plus, 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.

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.

Ladurée… the echo of this brand is called luxury. Of course, I’m talking about the worldwide known French pâtisserie maison founded by the miller, Louis Ernest Ladurée, in Paris at the end of the 19th century. I’m sure all of you are more than familiar with les macarons, Ladurée’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? 😉

Anyway, he dragged me into one of the Ladurée 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 Ladurée 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 Ladurée 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, Ladurée 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.

Ladurée 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. 🙂 Then you open the boxes and, through the tissue paper that wraps all Ladurée 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

Sucré unveils the pastry secrets of Ladurée Chef Pâtissier, Philippe Andrieu, from the financiers to the rose cream bigné, the crème brûlée, the éclairs and… les macaronsbien sûr, 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 Sucré and Salé 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, “Très chic, Très Ladurée“.

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 Ladurée’s allure.

Unfortunately for my American friends, the one and only Ladurée store in the United States is in New York – where else could it be? 😉 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 Ladurée’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?

À bientôt, 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!