hidden gem in london town

Step 1:  make your way around to the buzzer entrance of this private, walled school garden in Shorditch and ask to be let in.

Step 2:  make your way across the garden to the small glass building in the back left corner (in the summer, it’s fully open to the courtyard)

Step 3: enoy a wonderfully British meal brought to you by the wife of famed chef Fergus Henderson of St. John (his signature wines are also available here)

Step 4:  Roll on home . . . or better yet, walk off your meal by shopping the back streets in and around the neighborhood.

bon appetit!

Without hesitating, nearly a year in advance, I signed up for an ACE CAMPS learning vacation that promised a week in Provence, staying in Julia Child’s home, cooking recipes inspired by the famous cookbook author and potentially hitting up some of her well traveled haunts as we explored the region. As I’d never been to the South of France before and am a huge Julia Child fan, I was all in.

If you haven’t heard of ACE CAMPS travel, it is a company out of Canada that offers small group, mostly educational vacations to interesting spots all over the globe. Their offerings are highly fascinating, unusual, centered around one theme or activity and a great way to travel alone but not be alone, with a friend or even to book out the entire trip as a family affair  — as one family did for a second week at Julia’s house, and i thought what a great idea!

ACE trips are small group tours — we were five women and a chef/guide, the maximum that could fit in Julia’s house with shared accommodations. The itinerary was a good balance between far reaching tourist activities and cooking. After the first day of traveling around by car, it became clear that this trip had been planned by somebody back in Canada who wasn’t terribly familiar with the logistics of the local surroundings. The good news was, we discussed it over dinner that evening and after one phone call back to the main office, the group quickly agreed to change things up a bit picking out items from the original itinerary that seemed do-able, mixed with suggestions from our own research on the area. Everything we added to the itinerary was cost covered by the things we removed, the wine & food flowed throughout and all ‘n all, we had a great time — I think made easier by the fact these trips attract like-minded creative types. The head office just wanted us to be happy (this was a first time itinerary so learnings to be had) and our guide was endlessly amenable. She cooked amazing breakfasts each morning, cleaned up afterwards, planned and taught hands-on cooking classes every other day resulting in fabulous dinners, drove us around everywhere (not an easy feat if you’ve ever driven in the South of France) and handled all the details. Although on the costly side, I wouldn’t hesitate to take another of these vacations — indigo dying in Japan anyone?

So let’s talk Provence  — Round-abouts abound and people drive like maniacs. I don’t know how people found their way around before GPS (even with it, we got lost more often than I care to admit), not to mention everything is hidden and if you don’t know about something, you’re unlikely to just stumble across it. Made me glad, I was traveling in a group, actually, and that we had the internet and GPS to help us find some good stuff.

Julia Child’s Home — Known as La Pitchoune, Julia vacationed here with her husband Paul and amazing a-list of guests rolling in and out on a regular basis. The 1500 square foot, 3 bedroom, quintessentially French cottage was built on the property of their friend and fellow cookbook author, Simone Beck. The Child’s visited often over a 20 year period up until the time of Paul’s convalescence in the 80’s. A few years ago, the property was purchased by a Smith College alum (where Julia attended) who turned it into a vacation rental and even runs her own cooking school out of the house — not associated with ACE CAMP.

Julia’s kitchen remains exactly as it was with all the original cooking instruments lining the pegboard walls, while the rest of the place was lovingly updated at some point along the way. On the coffee table is a little black binder with Paul’s sketched house plans that show the slight differences from then ’til now, detailed instructions on how to work everything in the house, and lists of where to go in the area to purchase just about anything complete with Julia’s opinions and notes on each, circa 1970. Adorning the mantle is a photo of her and Paul who have to be the cutest couple in the history of love.

Best Home Decor Shop — With designers amongst us, we were constantly on the hunt for great shopping. And I think we found what may be my favorite shop of all time in the little town of Mougins. Called Envers Du Decor, it’s a mother daughter affair with the most beautiful country French style furnishings & accessories you have ever seen. We all purchased something and one interior designer even arranged to ship a host of objects back to her studio in Chicago. I would go back just to shop here, if nothing else.

Eat the Socca — a local street food found at markets throughout the region made from chickpea flour and water, cooked on a flat griddle and dusted with sea salt. It is supremely simple and delicious!  We found the best at the market in Valbonne (located just at the base of the stairs on the way up to the parking lot). It’s surprising that something as good as this hasn’t taken off in other parts of the world as a healthy treat — which just goes to show, you’ve got to travel to find the good stuff.

One Michelin Star — there are probably many Michelin starred restaurants in the area but one great original itinerary item I was thankful for, was dinner at Restaurant Lou Cigalon (an old-time restaurant recently taken over by a new chef). Just one year in and already star-adorned at the time we dined, the restaurant has just a handful of tables in a charming stone building along the main road in Valbonne. We dined in private and had a tour of the kitchen afterwards — up a narrow and winding staircase, clean as clean can be, no freezer, only a tiny refrigerator and a single chef for the evening. The food was amazing as were the local wines.

Art & Architecture — located just outside the fortified and uber-touristy village of Saint Paul de Vance is Foundation du Maeght. A visit here was our addition to the itinerary and the highlight of the trip from a culture perspective. A mid-century, architecture dream come true with a sculpture garden by Miro, modern artworks and views to die for stretching all the way to the sea. This is a true treasure not to be missed!

Wine Tasting — We had two completely different wine tasting experiences complements of ACE CAMP planning. One, a tiny little family run vineyard producing a few thousand bottles a year complete with hand drawn labels by one of the brothers. High up in the St. Jeannet hills, Vignoble Rasse is a chance to taste wines made from the ancient technique of sun aging. The six of us sat around the matriarch of this family run operation, trying one wine after another with healthy pours, while listening to stories about each vintage all while overlooking the hills of vines as far as the eye could see.

Our second experience was a large scale winery that by contrast produces millions of bottles a year, Chateau de Berne in Lorgues — a commercial winery with a Chalet & Relais hotel & spa, a restaurant, a mammoth gift shop and regular tours & festivals on the property to keep the tourists coming throughout the year. But to our surprise, we received a great tutorial on how to taste wines, what notes were what and the signature rosé wines weren’t half bad. Their bottles, a patented square design, are beautiful and I may have one that I now use as a water bottle with a little glass stopper, since polishing off the original contents.

Vacherin Mont d’Or — cheese glorious cheese! This buttery and oh so velvety cheese is only in season a few months of the year starting in November. Actually Swiss by origin, our guide made sure we were well stocked in the house at all times. I think we went through at least 4 of the small rounds in their little spruce boxes (and I may have polished off another on my own in London the following week). If you’re lucky, Murray’s cheese shop in NYC may have some available if in season but it will cost you.

still the place for me

Every time I visit Gaia Retreat & Spa, it’s slightly different. Dirt paths become paved walkways. Fabrics and lighting change style in the main lodge. New signage helps you find your way around the grounds. A new gym and yoga studio appear. Higher end accommodations dot around the property. WIFI gets added in the rooms (YAY!). A new signature line of products are introduced (and strongly marketed by co-owner Olivia Newton John’s image). From a business perspective, it’s smart and well-paced investment that keeps the PR machine growing and the awards rolling in.

Despite the growing guest numbers and changes all about, it’s still a very intimate experience. Check-in is a casual affair on the sofa accompanied by tea and fruit, the friendly wait/everything staff instantly learns your name and takes interest in your story while catering to your every need. The atmosphere is casual and you are welcome to walk around in your spa robe anywhere and everywhere. The grounds are still luscious and beautiful (even in a severe drought). And the food — the food is gorgeous, plentiful, healthy and simply the best part of your stay. Everyone says it — just look at scrambled eggs Gaia style as one example:

What was different to this veteran spa goer on a recent visit, are probably things most wouldn’t notice. The family dining table sat empty night after night and people instead, dined solo or with their travel companions. The spa was a-buzz with new and more therapists running about, even during the normally calm mid-week. The parking lot was full with cars from neighboring states. Every day there was a great stack of luggage on the front steps of people coming and going (one of the things I do appreciate about this spa is you can arrive and depart on any day of the week). And I was actually one of a handful of Americans this time around, much to my great surprise!

None of this was drastic change, just enough to make me take notice. Hmmmm, “If this were my first visit, would I have come back again?,” I wondered. I missed dining with others — all having comically different food restrictions the wait staff knowingly handles with ease; comparing notes on treatments and therapists; and winning the inevitable discussion about who traveled the farthest for their stay in paradise. The frenzy in the spa mid week caught me a bit off guard and I swear I heard the same wrap-up schpeel after treatments that somehow compromised my zen.

But in the long run, is that even possible?  Three days of beautiful surroundings, gentle exercise, being rubbed and scrubbed and eating healthy food while adjusting to a new time zone is three days well spent and zen enough, regardless.

So yes, it is still the place for me and will continue to be my first stop upon arrival down under whenever possible. It’s the perfect way to recuperate from the dreadful flight and with the exchange rate so positive, a great deal  — which explains the plethora of Americans about.

If you are going to go Down Under, now is the time (see all my tips and tricks here). And if you are so inclined, make Gaia Retreat and Spa part of the experience. Maybe I’ll see you there . . .

get ’em while it’s cold

She doesn’t ship during warm weather months — for good reason as chocolate melts and you wouldn’t want to waste something as special as these treasures!  Gâté Commes Des Filles the chocolate company by Alexandra Whisnant in Sommerville, Massachusetts may just be the best chocolates this side of the Atlantic.

Paris trained, Laudurée and Chez Panisse (CA) bread, Alexandra hand makes chocolates using only the freshest ingredients — often out of her mother’s garden — and highest quality chocolate that need to be consumed within days before the freshness fades. The date stamped boxes make perfect gifts but be sure to get some for yourself to make the $28 overnight shipping worthwhile.

Available in 4pc/$22, 9pc/$43 and 16 pc/$75 boxes. (shipping extra)

And if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the Boston area, stop by her new shop in the very hipster Bow Market. There you can not only get boxed chocolates but a giant cone of chocolate mousse or a chocolate frappe topped with fresh whipped cream!

I’m sensing a road trip!

all images courtesy Gâté Commes Des Filles

 

holiday gift guide — vermont edition 2019

Last Christmas, everybody on my list got a bottle of pure Vermont maple syrup. But Vermont has lot’s of locally made goods worthy of gift-giving. Here are my top picks for the 2019 holiday season.

Clockwise from upper left:  Simon Pearce Burlington Moss Glen serving bowl. 10.5 inches. $125   |   17″ Solid Oak French Paddle by Vermont Farm Table  $115      Hand made French Ticking Half Apron by Red House Vermont  $98     A Vermont twist on the classic s’more  — Shelburne Farms S’mores gift basket contains their 2-year waxed cheddar, local liquid honey and locally produced salted maple crackers. No fire required.   $33      Stacked Shape Butter Dish with antique wooden handle, hand made by Sugar House Ceramic Company   $58   |    Waxed Canvas Weekender Bag in true black. Also available in red, brown, green and grey by Red house Vermont  $268     Jam made with all local fruits and honey (instead of cane sugar) in the cutest little 2 oz jars so you can try lots of flavors.  $6.99 each at V. Smiley Preserves

 

the perfect purse

This amazingly gorgeous purse comes in 3 sizes and multiple colors both pebble and metallic leather. It’s a home run by A-esque, a small atelier that hand-makes all their bags in Melbourne. I’ve long been a fan and own several of their pieces but this one…this one I want in every color and every size. The price, as high end purses go in this day in age, makes that entirely possible. Ranging in price from AUS$ 550-800. Subtract 30% for US dollars with our favorable exchange rate and that’s pretty affordable. The bag also has a hidden strap that allows it to be worn cross-body as well. As I said, perfect!

If you could have just one, what color and size would you choose?

(photos courtesy of A-esque)

favorite places northern vermont

I haven’t been in Vermont all that long or done all that much but I have managed to find several gems to make up a favorites list in and around the Burlington area:

Philo Ridge Farm Market & Kitchen
2766 Mt. Philo Road, Charlotte

Home to the best breakfast sandwich in town this charming cafe & market (part of a real working farm) is my most favorite place to go hang out by the fire in the winter or overlooking beautiful Charlotte farm country in the summer. Serving breakfast & lunch, dinner during summer, the baked goods and especially biscuits, are wonderful. The accompanying little high end market stocks produce and meats from the farm along side locally produced pantry staples and gifts.

Shelburne Farms
1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne

People flock to Shelburne Farms during the summer for its educational farm program and of course to stay at the inn — a sprawling mansion that was once a Vanderbuilt summer house and the original homestead on the property. I say, skip the farm and take advantage of the several miles of walking trails that snake through the spectacular grounds between the road and lake Champlain. As a town resident, I get free admission during the summer (otherwise $8.00 a head to enter) but from November to May, the programs cease, the Inn closes and you have free reign to the property. Or visit the farm store open all year round to purchase some Shelburne Farms Cheddar Cheese — I’m partial to their beer cheese, a partnership with local favorite, Fiddlehead Brewery. One more note — skip the outrageously expensive and just mediocre restaurant at the inn. If you want to see the view and the inside of the house, grab a drink at the makeshift bar inside and sip away outside on the veranda. (open only in summer, no entry fee necessary)

Vergennes Laundry
247 Main Street, Vergennes

A charming little restaurant in the cutest little one horse town. Open for brunch on weekends and dinner Wed-Sat, the food is fresh, local and yummy!  Known for their baked goods and coffee served French style in bowls, i am partial to their weekly omelette special for $10.

LuLu
185 Main Street, Vergennes

For somewhere so cold, there is no shortage of ice cream in Vermont. No complaints here! LuLu creates scrumptious, unusual flavors in both hard and soft forms, from local farm-raised ingredients. Well worth the drive out to Vergennes for a creamy treat. Also available in pints at the Philo Ridge Farm Market.

Tomgirl
266 Pine Street, Burlington

This place is crazy expensive BUT the best place to get fresh pressed juices, smoothies, soups, salads and yes, those gluten free banana nut muffins. Everything is super fresh, healthy and the juices are all sold in glass jars. No plastics. No sugar. No packages. Just good, healthy fare. It may or may not become a habit so beware!

European Touch Spa
928 Falls Road, Shelburne

Simply the best facialist I have ever been to. Krystina, the owner of this one-woman body spa tucked into a back room of a multi-vendor house turned beauty enclave, is Eastern European born and trained. Her prices are amazingly affordable and she really knows her stuff. This is the place for hard core skin care not the fluffy, relaxation type facial. Just put yourself in Krystina’s hands, and she’ll tell you exactly what you need. Watch out though, she gives a mean (interpret: hard) foot massage.

Dedalus
388 Pine Street, Burlington

A surprisingly sophisticated wine bar and provisions shop for a town like Burlington. The restaurant decor is timber barn Vermont meets Ikea for a homey feel. And they really do know their stuff. Great for a group or intimate evening for two.

Miss Weinerz Donuts
Around Town

Like donuts you have never had before .  .  . doughy and yeasty, they’re heavy vs. fluffy, oozing of local flavors and come in both glazed and filled varieties. You can find them at only a handful of shops around town just three days a week. You can order in advance on her website or take your chances there will be any left at your local City Market. Get there early!

Honey Road
156 Church Street, Burlington

By far my favorite restaurant in Burlington and a go to for any occasion, any night of the week. Greek influenced small plates — meaning it’s not cheap because when are small plates anything but expensive!?!  The difference here is you will walk away full and satisfied. Take the advice of your server on how much to order. And whatever you do, don’t miss the chicken wings. I’m not a wings girl but these are amazingly sweet, sticky, unusually flavored and addicting. Haven’t had a bad thing yet so you are safe with anything on the menu. Book in advance if you can or be prepared to wait.

look who’s back

In case anyone was wondering, I’ve spent the past year living on a lake in a small Vermont hamlet. When I tell that to most folk, their jaw drops. “Aren’t you a city girl?” Maybe. But to wake up to the spectacular view of rolling green hills dropping off over a vast lake, surrounded by mountains in the distance. Let’s just say, it’s been special. For the few months of the year it was green, anyway. Today the ground is snow covered. It’s c-c-c-cold outside. And I’m reconsidering this journey. But that’s for another day .  .  .

In the meantime, I’m hoping to get back to posting about my travels and more on a semi-regular basis. What do you say, we start with a little day trip to the Northeast Kingdom here in Vermont:

It’s about a two hour drive to the NEK from the general Burlington area. Through the Stowe resort town and beyond into seemingly nowheresville. Miles of winding roads and endless trees — take the drive in the Fall and you won’t be disappointed!  Know where you are going and there are treasures to be found .  .  .

STOP 1:  The Museum of Everyday Life, 3482 Drypond Road, Glover, VT

IMG_0060This place is a one of a kind marvel. A self-service celebration of the mundane things you and I might, otherwise, not give a second thought to — everything from lowly dust, to safety pins, to scissors — the main exhibition during my visit.

Turn on the lights, view, read and listen your way through a selection of items from the permanent collection and highlights from past exhibitions into a series of spaces dedicated to a single subject. Objects, activities, artworks and uniquely curated experiences await. Above all, don’t be afraid to trust your instincts. One curious girl in my crew saw a record player behind what we thought was a curtain of netting to keep onlookers away from objects on display. Only her willingness to crawl under this fragile barrier revealed it was actually a musical curtain of bells powered by said spinning turntable. Magical!

Give yourself a good hour here. There’s a gift shop in the corner with an honor box for cash payment. And don’t forget to turn the lights out as you leave.

 

STOP 2:  Bread & Puppet Theater Barn, 753 Heights Road, Glover, VT

This carefully organized warehouse of giant papier mâché puppets, is far more impressive than the theater they are made for. The Bread & Puppet theater is a traveling troop of performers putting on political & historical puppet shows around the country. I personally found one of the cult-like shows extremely difficult to sit through but was truly mesmerized by this barn housing 55 years of puppets, so carefully arranged on the walls and ceilings that they beg you to create your own stories to match their grandeur.

The Bread & Puppet “Family” also supports themselves through the sale of printed posters, cards and books based on the founder’s original works. Affordable, colorful and powerful artworks that make nice souvenirs if your into that sort of thing. And don’t miss the bus full of crafty treasures for sale parked along the road across the street. It’s hippy-ville Vermont at it’s finest.

Note: Stops 1 & 2 are just down the road from one another and it’s no coincidence — they share minds & resources.

STOP 3: Parker Pie Company, 161 Country Road West Glover, VT

Pie as in pizza pie with a selection of local craft beers on tap for lunch. The local watering hole/general store/gallery. But you are going to have to stop and ask directions because it doesn’t show up on any GPS — if you can even get one working up here — and is far off the main drag. Worth the detour, however, and chances are it will be packed to the gills.

 

STOP 4: Red Sky Trading, 2984 Glover Street, Glover VT

An honor system little barn of a shop with kitchy knick-knacks, local cheeses (pick up some award-winning Jasper Hill cheese — while nearby, they don’t offer tours or have a shop of their own) and home-baked sweets. If it’s a nice day, pull up an Adirondack chair and enjoy a bit of dessert while taking in the scenery. If sweets aren’t your thing, make this stop 3 so you don’t have to back-track after lunch.

Stop 5: Hill Farmstead Brewery, 403 Hill Road, Greensboro Bend, VT

Voted the best brewery in the world five years running, it is a worthy stop to pick up a growler, a bottle or a few cans as it’s not available to purchase in stores — only on tap in select Vermont establishments and here onsite. There are limits to the amount you can buy, especially for limited releases. But the beer is GOOD, you can hang out on the grounds and during the summer, there are often food trucks and music on the property as well.

Note:  The brewery is closed Sun-Tues so plan your travels accordingly. This is not one to be missed. Prepare to queue.

Loaded up with local cheese, beer, artwork and kingdom culture, you are ready to head out of the NEK and back to civilization.

to jam or not to jam

Nothing beats a classic Aussie Lamington — the soft sponge cake that slightly absorbs it’s chocolate icing around all sides, covered in sweetened coconut flakes. And yes, I fall on the side of JAM tucked in the center! If you’re not convinced, omit that portion of the recipe.

LAMINGTONS WITH JAM

Sponge Cake

10 T. butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 eggs
1 2/3 cups flour                                                                                                                  2 teaspoons baking powder                                                                                             3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk                                                                                                              Raspberry Jam, seedless

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease & flour a 9 x 13 cake pan.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and gradually beat in the sugar with the vanilla, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Gradually beat in eggs one at a time.

Sift the flour and salt and fold into the creamed mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with flour. Add a little more milk if necessary so that the mixture drops easily from a spoon.

Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared pan and bake for 30–35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Cut the cake into two even layers and spread with a thin layer of raspberry jam — enough to hold the layers together but not to ooze out when cut. Press the layers together and cut into 2 inch cubes.

Icing

3 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
4–6 tablespoons boiling water
1/2 teaspoon butter
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract                                                                                        5 oz. sweetened flaked coconut

Sift the powdered sugar and cocoa into a bowl. Add the boiling water, butter and vanilla, then stir until smooth and shiny.

Spread  a small amount the flaked coconut on a large plate. Dip the sandwiched cake pieces in the chocolate icing then immediately roll in the coconut, using two forks to turn and coat.  Replenish the coconut as needed. Leave on a wire rack to set.

Recipe adapted from Margaret Fulton’s Baking Classics