Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Are you busy May 22nd? Buy this

From my inbox. I can't help but share with my fatheads this look into another world.

Concierge Auctions announces auction without reserve of “World’s Best California Property” in Napa Valley
Featuring antique, handcrafted details coupled with modern amenities, the 32-room
Spanish-Mediterranean estate on 20 acres offers the best of private, wine country living
St. Helena, California (April 11, 2014) –
Concierge Auctions, a luxury real estate auction firm serving high-net-worth individuals worldwide, today announced the auction of Villa de Montaña, named “World’s Best California Property” in 2006 by London’s World’s Best Magazine. The property, originally offered for $22.5 million, will be auctioned without reserve on May 22nd in cooperation with Daniel DerVartanian of Sotheby’s International Realty and Steven Gregory of Coldwell Banker Brokers of the Valley.
The 20-acre, 32-room Spanish-Mediterranean estate is spread across a spectacular main house, guest cottage, and separate staff quarters. The property offers panoramic views of St. Helena village and Napa Valley and a private winding drive that is lined with antique limestone columns and mature olive trees.
Built in 1941, the house retains its elegant original features, including five antique, French wood-burning fireplaces. A 2001 renovation, however, introduced the finest craftsmanship of the current age, including custom-designed iron windows, French doors, and gates. One-of-a-kind wallpapers adorn walls throughout the interior of the house, and the main house kitchen includes an individually crafted cabinetry set between hand-painted Portuguese tile murals.
“Every fixture within Villa de Montaña features details that are at once intricate and timeless in their elegance” said Gregory. “As the rooms of the house reveal themselves, guests are overcome with a sense of wonder and amazement that is palpable.”
"Just as the Napa Valley is recognized as one of the world's premier and most beautiful wine regions, Montaña is recognized as the region's premier and most beautiful estate with privacy," added DerVartanian. “What’s more, Villa de Montaña’s splendor is complemented by seamless functionality. Its three offices and exercise room, not to mention the speakers throughout the house, make it an utterly practical space for modern living.”
The exterior of the house is built of stone elements from France and draped in ivy, a marriage of nature and artistic faculty that underline the property’s calming effect. These stunning walls are arranged in an octagonal shape to frame a meticulously coiffed courtyard that is designed for entertaining in luxury. An expansive pool and spa within the master suite garden area offer complete relaxation for guests who wish to retreat from social and gastronomic activities at the house to a space of physical and mental relaxation.
“Villa de Montaña is the ultimate getaway for wine country living,” said current owner and renowned luxury estate developer Richard Wax. “After thirteen incredible years at the estate, my wife and I have reluctantly decided to say goodbye to the most beautiful place on earth in order relocate to where my business is based, Aspen, Colorado.”
While the courtyard’s treasures are most fully appreciated from the outdoors, the house’s two opposing towers, home to two grand grand master suites and the guest master suite, each offer breathtaking views of the landscapes and vistas below.
“Clients come to Concierge Auctions to buy and sell the best in luxury living,” said Concierge Auctions Founder and President, Laura Brady. “As one of the nation’s most renowned luxury real estate developers, Mr. Wax partnered with Concierge Auctions because he knows that the next owner of Villa de Montaña seeks white-gloved service in all aspects of life, including during the process of buying a home. We’re happy to help facilitate this auction to provide both him and the lucky buyer with an experience that matches the convenience and ease that they expect.”
The auction of Villa de Montaña, located at 2735 Sulphur Springs Avenue in St. Helena, California, will be held live on May 22nd. A 2.5% commission is offered to the buyer’s representing broker. The property will be open for preview daily by appointment. See Auction Terms and Conditions for full details. For more information, visit, call (888) 953-1310 or join the social discussion at #ConciergeAuctions.
About Concierge Auctions
Concierge Auctions is a New York City-based luxury real estate auction firm founded in 2008. Concierge Auctions serves high-net-worth individuals internationally through an accelerated marketing process that obtains fair market value for high-end properties. The firm executes auctions typically valued between $2.5 million and $20 million.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

In which we "take the cake"

Brief notes, my fatheads. The Josh sauvignon blanc is very good, not as powerfully grassy as our delicious New Zealand sauvignon blancs, but good. Retail, about $13.

Next, Aristophanes. And why not? Get a load of this.

EURIPIDES: He could sit in the assembly with all the women, and speak in my defence, if necessary.
MNESILOCHUS: What, openly? Or in disguise?
EURIPIDES: Disguised. Dressed up in women's clothes.
MNESILOCHUS: What a magnificent idea! That's really up to your best standard. For downright cunning, we take the cake, I must say.

This is from Aristophanes' The Poet and The Women, better known to Luciaphils -- lovers of E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels, circa 1939 -- and perhaps to the world as the Thesmophoriazusae, or "the women celebrating the Thesmophoria." The festival was one of those strange ancient ones in which women gathered to dance, praise a god or goddess, freak out, and maybe kill random animals or men. Luciaphils remember that Lucia reads the play and quotes it briefly in The Worshipful Lucia, when she is being superb about Mapp's "wind-egg" baby. My fatheads, you simply must read the books.

Anyway, we are much struck, aren't we? by Aristophanes saying, 2,500 years ago, that something "takes the cake." The translator of our 1964 Penguin classics edition, David Barrett, adds a simple footnote. He says, "The phrase is a literal translation from the Greek. Perhaps the only phrase from Aristophanes to have found its way into English."

Now how extraordinary. Or, "absolutely too straordinario," as Lucia would put it. What cake? -- a Greek cake? Made of what? Were there really occasions or ceremonies in ancient Greece when cakes were prizes, and so the image of being awarded one would be vivid in the language, and pass untouched to us?

Yes, it seems so, but you must dig a little to find out more. If you consult your dictionary under "cake" or "take," because sometimes dictionaries unpack idioms you know, -- or if you consult your Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Sir Paul Harvey, 1937 -- gad, how old my books are, but at least they are free of political correctness) under "Aristophanes," you find no asseverations that "take the cake" came straight into our language from the Thesmophoriazusae. Modern foolers-about with the Internet who notice the expression do a bit of digging of their own, and all seem to quote and re-quote two bits of information regarding it: one, that it comes originally from Aristophanes yes, but from another play of his called The Knights ("if you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours"); and two, that it also derives from 19th century southern American "cake-walking" dances popular among plantation slaves. These cake walks seem to have been exciting, intensely competitive, demanding country dances, in which finely dressed couples strutted and pranced on a strictly demarcated floor, and were judged for their grace and synchronization of movement. The winners took home a cake, sometimes presented by the visiting white master. Everybody who mentions the cake walk seems to tack on one more American source for our take-the-cake phrase, a sentence from an 1847 story about horse racing ("the winning horse take [sic] the cakes"). All seem to agree generally that "take the cake," even if birthed by a Greek comic master poet in antiquity, is mostly an Americanism.   

I use the term "foolers about with the Internet" to distinguish those who have uncovered these two items, from we who go deeper and are therefore -- I decree it -- researchers. Wondrous Google books will let you find two more things. It will let you have a look at The Thesmophoriazusae of Aristophanes, published by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, MA, in 1904. Mr. Rogers doesn't even bother translating the play into English. It was a scholarly era, his publisher was Oxford: he intends you to read in Greek, he proffering notes, mostly about Greek usage but that is all. At their proper place his notes tell us "a πνραμους" -- transliterated, this I think is pnramous?-- "was a cake of which the principal ingredients were parched wheat and boiled honey, and which is specially known as the prize awarded to the man who in an all-night drinking bout, with all his companions asleep around him, kept awake till sunrise...." Query, then who awarded the cake? Ah, perhaps that is the point. You took it ... Mr. Rogers does allow Aristophanes borrowed the phrase from his own Knights. When wondrous Google books also lets you peek at A Dictionary of Cliches: a Word-Lover's Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases, by Christine Ammer, you find there the drinking-bout cake and θεζμοφοριαζουςαι, the Thesmophoriazusae, again. We painstakingly type out Greek letters here because we think Lucia would happily and loftily do so. Typeit is as wondrous as anything else online. I wish it had more than 1,100 likes on Facebook.

So should we conclude that both foolers-about and researchers are right about the origins of "take the cake," and that it comes from Aristophanes, after "a strange lapse" of millenia, via the American south? Or is it possible that two civilizations thousands of years apart happened to coin an identical idiom, because both sometimes gave cakes as prizes?

And we would perhaps like to know how to make this antique cake. Alas, it seems we are fated only to learn that its ingredients were the parched wheat and honey. We should remember that parching means to dry out through exposure to heat, not -- as we might intuit -- to parboil. The purpose is to slough off indigestible husks from wheat kernels. James Augustus St. John, in his History of the Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece, Volume 3 (London, 1842) calls the mysterious Greek cake "the Chaerine," and the all-night festival the "Panuchia." In her chapter on baking Madeleine Kamman in The New Making of a Cook tells us that parched cereals, perhaps eaten out of the hand like nuts or in time crushed, mixed with water, and drunk, represented mankind's earliest steps on the road to bread making. For that matter it was also the road to beer.

This leads us back to drink, and to that photo above of the nice Josh sauvignon blanc, and our asseveration that we were going to just do "brief notes." We intended to unpack other topics of interest but we got -- like a suitcase? -- carried away. Here is a new beer for you, to sip while you ponder whether or not to finish reading The Poet and the Women. Very strange. At the end there is a character called simply a Scythian, whom the translator makes to talk like Chico Marx, in non-stop "I break-a you face" style. Perhaps Scythians were the roughneck immigrants of ancient Athens.

Round Barn Brewery Kolsch style ale. Sweet, fresh, not too bitter, and from Michigan. Retail, about $10 for a 6 pack. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gratin of ...

Sometimes I get annoyed with political writers, especially conservative ones, because it seems to me all they really do is to keep their careers alive chronicling the slow disintegration of the status quo -- whereas at least leftists have a passionate agenda. John Fund at NRO wrote a long article about the SWAT teams that various government bureaucracies now have, and then completely gutted his article of any meaning by saying at the end, of course it would "be politically impossible" to dismantle the SWAT teams. Of course, because everyone knows new government activities are never challenged, and no elected politician would ever try what an intellectual wouldn't.

Then again, just when I think I'm through with these idiots, let them talk to each other and I'll survey the fashion blogs, it tends to happen that I read something stronger the next day. Something written by someone who doesn't necessarily insert "the weasel clause" -- as another frustrated NRO reader put it in a recent comment on the site -- into his allotted three pages of punditry. Today's "Brazen Bull," by Kevin Williamson, is one such. When that happens, I decide to go on keeping abreast of political chronicling, of Majesty's loyal opposition, after all.

Politics is everywhere around us but it introduces such a jarring, uncreative note that I feel I must give you a recipe now, or something about a new scarf or shoe, plus a little more Byron. Here is Don Juan again, from Canto the Third, LXXXVIII. It seems to be about pundits.

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;
'Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper -- even a rag like this,
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that's his!

Now we will cook something very simple, that you might whip up if you are deputed to "bring something" to an Easter gathering. What follows is a gratin, a dish of any parboiled vegetable layered into a casserole, coated with a cream or a tomato sauce, sprinkled with bread crumbs or grated cheese, and then briefly baked. All this is less a recipe than what employers might call a skill set, -- or just a useful technique to know. I'm sure it's to be found everywhere; I happened to learn it from Bon Appétit's French Country Favorites (Knapp, 1987). Of the scores of possible variations explained on pp.84-85, I opted for Savoy cabbage and the very basic cream sauce and Parmesan topping.

Vegetable Gratin

Parboil about 3 cups chopped Savoy cabbage 15 minutes, until tender. Drain and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Butter a small, 1 and 1/2 quart casserole dish.

Make a cream sauce: melt about 3 Tbsp. butter in a small heavy pot, and when it bubbles a little add 3 Tbsp. flour. Cook and stir to form a simmering paste, without letting the roux turn color. Add about 1 and 1/2 cups milk, gradually, stirring to incorporate, until you have slightly thick, creamy sauce. Salt and pepper to taste.

Place the cooked cabbage in the casserole. Spoon the sauce over. Top with 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until bubbling, hot, and slightly browned. 

The dinner made about a hundred dishes; 
Lamb and pistachio nuts -- in short, all meats,
And saffron soups, and sweetbreads; and the fishes
Were of the finest that e'er flounced in nets,
Drest to a Sybarite's most pamper'd wishes; 
The beverage was various sherbets
Of raisin, orange, and pomegranate juice,
Squeezed through the rind, which makes it best for use.
Don Juan, Canto the Third, LXII. Who knew Lord Byron was such a foodie? And I'm sure he would love that word. Of all poets, he along with Shakespeare seems to have been able to unbend a little, and to have had an actual sense of humor. (On the other side of the scale, this week for the first time in thirty years I read again the dreadful "Richard Cory," by the dreadful Edwin Arlington Robinson. My son had to write a short essay on the poem. I probably had to do the same in my senior year, and probably got about the same remarks in blue pen in the margin from my teacher. I recall also being told that Robinson had a lot of ear aches as a child. Even then I thought he wrote like a poet who had a lot of ear aches as a child.) ... Anyway I feel sure at some point Byron will mention a gratin.

Friday, April 18, 2014

2013 Sottano chardonnay classico

Have you ever seen this on your grocery store or liquor store shelves? Perhaps not. It's one of those small-scale, graceful, toothsome wines from a fine maker who sells his product via a small-scale (graceful? toothsome?) distributor. Perhaps even an independent broker, about whom you, the buyer, wonder how on earth does he earn a living just from commissions? 

I don't know how he does, but selling Sottano chardonnay classico (there is also a cabernet, very good*) should help.

By the way I missed the lunar eclipse the other night, although I know what they are like. I stayed up once as a teenager to witness one from start to finish, a good six-hour process as I recall. Eventually the moon does turn a dark reddish color; more than that, it suddenly hangs there in the sky as a small three-dimensional object; you have the strange sense that now it is its right size, and that you could reach up and pluck it down. Then the shadow passes, the red tinge lightens to a yellowy ochre, and finally the moon emerges as usual, the bright flat little klieg-light disc that bloats and thins with a certain smug trickery from one month to the next. Very early in the morning these past few days it has loomed very large, glowing above a dark brown-ochre spring landscape that looks as if it was painted for the cover of an old Gothic novel: a mass of dim dark interlaced trees, the dark stubby feathered grasses of a dim sepia brown meadow, in the middle distance the dark block of sepia milk-washed air itself. A few last stars vanish, it seems, even as you look at them. The robins sing, timidly. They seem to be not quite sure the ghastly winter is over. The morning star, which I suppose must be Venus, glows in the east. Look as you may, you can't seem to find firm blazing and wintry Orion any more.

Lord Byron puts it well, don't you think? -- and even talks a bit about food and wine, too. We here at Pluot are very fond of opening great books at random. Here is Don Juan (Canto the Second, CLXX).

While Venus fills the heart (without heart really
Love, though good always, is not quite so good),
Ceres presents a plate of vermicelli, --
For love must be sustain'd like flesh and blood,
While Bacchus pours out wine, or hands a jelly:
Eggs, oysters, too, are amatory food;
But who is their purveyor from above
Heaven knows -- it may be Neptune, Pan, or Jove .... 

*Retail, about $12.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Double Decker red blend -- and Barzun's paragraph

I am no longer sure whether red blends really are all the rage, or whether salesmen tell me that because they know I got to liking red blends when they were all the rage.

This one is very nice, too. Brought to you by the Wente family, who make the Food Network's Entwine. Retail, about $12.

Now I must share with you a summation of a very interesting paragraph from a book I have owned for years, but that I have never read through because it's very deep and difficult. It has what the author himself, when he is talking about great books, calls "thickness," that is, not physical inches of paper but complexity of ideas and associations per page. "A physically thin volume can thus be 'thick,' " he says.

This particular book is Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present -- 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, published in 2000 when the author was no less than 93 years old. (Hear us Lord: we want to be like him.) Somewhere in the midst of it -- I brought it to work so I can dip into it on my lunch breaks -- he writes that profound self-consciousness is a characteristic of the modern age. No one can be self-conscious all the time, all during the conscious day; this is why antiquity advised "know thyself," precisely because it was a task, not a state of being. For its part the Church also demanded some self-consciousness, in the form of pondering one's sins, seeking absolution, and doing penance. But only the modern age came up with the practice of what Barzun labels "secular self-consciousness." This is the contemplating of one's thoughts and emotions, endlessly, with the same thoroughness that scientists at the dawn of the modern age were applying to plant life or gross anatomy, but without those disciplines' ability to find facts. All we can find in ourselves are endless plausibilities, because our thoughts and emotions will always bear some connections to some interpretations of some circumstances in our lives some of the time. In the margin of this one paragraph, which is shorter, better done, and "thicker" than the one I write here, I scribbled my distillation. "Endless navel-gazing leads to plausibility, not truth."    

I don't know if you will agree with me but I found Barzun's paragraph carries possibilities of liberation. Someone once said to me kindly, at a time when a life crisis of mine was becoming a bit threadbare, "at some point you have to stop contemplating." That was true, but Barzun's paragraph explains why, technically. It's not that you should leave real inner problems unprobed and unsolved. Self consciousness is a part of life, although women, especially, tend to brood. But, done endlessly so that it becomes a state of being, -- it won't get you to the truth. Perhaps we grasp this, weakly, when we yearn after the frustrations of "closure."

The great Jacques Barzun died in October, 2012, at the age of 104, about a month shy of his 105th birthday (hear us Lord). Of his many, many books, I have read only two or three. Which means that I should properly never lack for something to do, even if I live to be ... well, you understand.   

Thursday, April 10, 2014

2011 Bread & Butter chardonnay


Exactly what the name suggests: butter (and maybe bread), vanilla and cream, mangoes and I don't know what all. Also, a lesson in restaurant versus grocery store markups: a glass of this delicious liquid may cost you $10 at a local bistro. A whole bottle, at the supermarket down the street, may relieve you of $12. Now I understand. The restaurant is recouping the cost of the bottle every time it sells one glass.

And I've decided against abandoning you, my fatheads, while I work on all my projects. As Lucia would say, "it is just busy people who have time for everything." I also decided against abandoning dear Blogger for WordPress, even though Blogger did pull the plug on At First Glass, and even though WordPress, with all its sleek gray and blue bells and whistles, looks as though it is meant for cool people, not moms and retail floozies. No matter, or "je m'en fiche" (I don't give a damn) as I learned to say by watching a French film in a college French class some years ago.

(It was a crazy movie, all about a young Parisienne who searches out some deep dark secret about her father, or was it grandfather? -- a man whom she suspected might have been a collaborator with the Nazis in World War II but who turned out to be not only a member of the Resistance but also a man who left France for Algeria after the war and then ... converted to Islam and stayed there! Insane. At a time -- 2006 or so -- when, so we read, Islam was and is slowly strangling western Europe, filmmakers producing introductory things about French culture for American college kids felt some deep need to show that, well, a Resistance fighter circa 1946 would naturally flee from victory in the land of Chartres, Voltaire and Montrachet to Algeria to embrace the god of female genital cutting. The only character any of us liked was Bruno, the Ken-doll television anchorman who was the pretty Parisienne's best friend.)

Yes, je m'en fiche. Blogger still has way better customization features, for free, than grim cool WordPress offers for money. 

I'm so relieved at it all that I must give you some music. Last night even in the middle of the pledge drive I heard something wondrous on our dear WFMT. This is Liszt's "Fountains of the Villa d'Este." In the very lovely French language it's called "les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este," les jeux d'eau literally meaning "games of water."

We can also enjoy a Bread & Butter pinot noir, retailing for about the same as the chardonnay, $12. 

Monday, April 7, 2014


Now, my fatheads, you mustn't be appalled if I leave you to your own devices for perhaps long stretches in the next few weeks or even months. I have so many projects I am working on. (Projects is such a nice strong word. It calls to mind not only paper and ink and ideas but maybe flower pots and twine, or buttons and glue, or hammers and determinedness. I borrowed the word from another blogger.) I am compiling my second book of essays from the vanished At First Glass, this compilation tentatively called If No One Minds, and have decided also to take my first compilation, Prose Food, and break it up into chapbooks. This decision was almost thrust upon me after I explained to a friend how long Prose Food is, and that I was submitting it to various publishers but had heard nothing in response. No surprise there, of course, since I wasn't born yesterday. But when my friend said, "three hundred pages is a big investment for any publishing company," I suddenly saw things as it were from the other side. Yes, that would be a big investment for an unknown food and wine blogger.

Very well, why can't I make chapbooks and bring them to local craft fairs and village fests this spring and summer, and see if people will buy them? I'm thinking $4 each, or three for $10. This means I am learning how to prepare a chapbook using Microsoft Word '03 and my own printer. You stand warned: in case you ever try it, know that double-sided printing is a bit tricky. Quickly I've learned I either have to invest in a long-armed stapler or an awl and some twine (aha!) when it comes to the project of binding. Prose Food #1 is already 78 pages long. 

Then there's the novel about divorce in the age of the internet. And there's photography. Why can't I bring my photos to the local library and ask if they will display them on their ever-changing art exhibit wall? And the spring is coming so I never know when I have to rush out and take shaky pictures of sandhill cranes whirling overhead while they decide, en masse and "kk-rrool" -ing, which way is north. Actually they seem to fly west a lot. Below I include the near-to-bud-bursting branches of the maple trees, to give an idea of scale. I like the freakish, Wizard-of-Oz effect of the blurred birds.

I am also still determined to at least occasionally be a fashion blogger, since it won't do to leave that niche entirely to the dewy-skinned young girls who take endless photos of themselves wearing the same new dress and boots. I can't decide what they've got the most of, ego, looks, pin money, better cameras, more friends to leave gushing comments, or clothes. Having a tripod for the camera also helps. Here I'm trying to show you my pink and beige leopard print "infinity" scarf. Indoors, without a tripod, and without focusing just on my neck. If you want to see how this is really done, go to Vixen Vintage, or Delightfully Tacky. Or pick from among the greats at Signature9's top 99 fashion blogs from around the world. There's no end to the cascading style sheets -- Shop, Sponsor, Life and Family, Spirituality and Wellness, Home and Garden, Art and Design, etc. etc. Food and Wine. Yes, they dare to poach on our territory.

You will understand, then, if sometimes I just hurtle in with a quick picture of a wine label, or a dashed-off recipe. Lately I find the comfort of meatballs appealing for relaxed Sundays, so you may find lots of those. Food & Wine's January 2014 issue still sits propped open to page 96 on my desk: Herbed Lamb Meatballs with Rich Tomato Sauce and Ricotta. Delicious, made with almonds soaked in milk. I also made April's Veal Meatballs with Mustard Greens (p.104), but was too busy yesterday to get a chance to try the March issue's Beef Ricotta Meatballs with Braised Beet Greens. (Memo to Food & Wine, let's lay off the endless greens, shall we?) Perhaps there's a meatball chapbook idea here. 

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...