Jan 28, 2008

A Basque Treat...

It's been at least a couple of weeks since I've written about food. Saturday evening, I was given reason to return to the subject. Paul, Camille and I met at Bistro Basque, a rare gem of a restaurant in Milford, Connecticut, just across the Housatonic River from where I'm staying. In the words of their Website, "Just as the Basque region is divided between France and Spain (3 provinces in France, 4 in Spain), a quick glance at the menu confirms that Bistro Basque brings the style of each cuisine with a regional touch: spanish tapas and french bistro." The food was fabulous, served in an intimate setting, complemented by impeccable, friendly service.

We started out with three different Tapas, or appetizers:
Toast with marinated pork tenderloin, tetilla cheese, piquillo pepper and black olives

Piquillos rellenos con ensalada mixta de Txanguro
Piquillo peppers stuffed with iberian style crab meat salad

Baked goat cheese toasts, grilled tomatoes, provencal herbs

Our main courses were also varied -- Paul had a broiled monkfish in lobster sauce, Camille had Saumon a la provencale; a grilled salmon served with a taragon sauce, and I had the Paella, estilo vasco, a perfectly prepared Paella, with lots of seafood and the perfect touch of saffron. And yes, we did have dessert.

Most highly recommended!

The Dolceola

In September, 1997, I found myself at the Memphis Dulcimer Festival. The program indicated that at 2:00 PM on Saturday afternoon, Andy Cohen would be playing the gospel music of Washington Phillips, accompanying himself on the Dolceola. I didn't know who Andy Cohen was, or Washington Phillips, or what a Dolceola was, so I attended this session. I was completely captivated with the music, the instrument, and the musician. We have stayed in touch and become friends through a common love for this marvelous instrument and its music.

Andy is a very talented musician, mostly known for his blues interpretation and his encyclopedic knowledge of blues roots musicians. Andy is married to Larkin Bryant, long recognized as a dulcimer expert and author of the staple instructional “Larkin’s Dulcimer Book.” They have recorded and performed extensively both as a team and individually.

The Dolceola was a piano in miniature manufactured in the early 1900's by the Toledo Symphony Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio. Not very many of these instruments have survived. Andy has catalogued around forty. He has published an article entitled "THE DOLCEOLA, The World's Smallest Grand Piano" in the journal, Experimental Musical Instruments.

Nothing delights me more than bringing old devices back to life. The Dolceola is no exception. Through my relationship with Andy, I was given the opportunity to restore a Dolceola for a client in Montana. It became a very enjoyable job, although one that tested my patience on more than one occasion. I even managed to reproduce the decals that were applied to the originals! Here’s what I started with…

The body of the instrument was badly cracked and had become unglued in a number of areas. The keyboard mechanism had, at some time during its long life, been submerged in water. That caused a lot of rust that had made much of the mechanism inoperable. Moths and mice had taken their toll on the felt parts of the action (but the glue remnants were still there to let me know where the felt had been). Many strings were broken, but I was fortunate enough to find a source of custom-made strings. And here's the result of 2 years' work....
This restoration led to a few others in subsequent years, although I have no desire to see the innards of any more Dolceolas (other than the one I’m restoring for myself).

Twenty years after its last production, a preacher by the name of Washington Phillips made a series of recordings of gospel music. It was incorrectly reported that he accompanied himself on the Dolceola. These wonderful songs have been preserved on at least one CD, "I Was Born to Preach the Gospel," released by Yazoo Records as Yazoo 2003. For many years, music scholars believed that Phillips had indeed been playing the Dolceola. Andy Cohen taught himself to replicate those performances on the Dolceola before it was determined that they had probably been performed on a couple of large zithers played simultaneously! Andy’s accomplishment is even more remarkable, recognizing that he successfully replicated this complex music.

A couple weeks ago, Andy contacted me to let me know he was going to be performing with the Dolceola at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Mary Ann and I couldn’t attend the show, but I found this video this week on YouTube:

After the concert, we did have the pleasure of an overnight visit from Andy. Isn’t it wonderful how lives become intertwined and the resulting connections and friendships enrichen us?

Jan 12, 2008

Returning to the Scene of the Crime...

In 1962, I was assigned to my first active duty Navy assignment. I reported aboard the USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709), a destroyer homeported in Newport, Rhode Island. I left that ship in 1964 and rarely returned to Newport in the years that followed. I think my last visit was in 1965. So it was a no-brainer when Paul (my fearless leader) and Camille asked if I'd like to visit Newport with them this weekend. We drove up Saturday morning and drove straight to The Breakers. The Preservation Society of Newport County describes it this way,
"The Breakers is the grandest of Newport's summer "cottages" and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family's social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad, which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century. The Commodore's grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, became Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and purchased a wooden house called The Breakers in Newport during that same year. In 1893, he commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a villa to replace the earlier wood-framed house which was destroyed by fire the previous year. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a 70 room Italian Renaissance- style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Allard and Sons of Paris assisted Hunt with furnishings and fixtures, Austro-American sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture, and Boston architect Ogden Codman decorated the family quarters. "

It did not disappoint. We then proceeded to Marble House, another one of the remarkable summer mansions. Again, in the words of the Preservation Society, "Alva Vanderbilt was a leading hostess in Newport society, and envisioned Marble House as her "temple to the arts" in America. It was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The cost of the house was reported in contemporary press accounts to be $11 million, of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Upon its completion, Mr. Vanderbilt gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present. "

After these two tours, we enjoyed lunch at the historic White Horse Tavern, housed in a building built in 1652! And the food was wonderful. The proprietor recommended a restaurant that we might enjoy for dinner. After we had gotten checked into the hotel, Paul and I hiked a couple of miles along the Newport waterfront in search of the restaurant. We found it and made reservations for dinner.

Dinner was incredible! The restaurant is called "Restaurant Bouchard," an unassuming place that has won the the DiRona Award from the Distinguished Restaurants of North America from 1999 through 2007. Chef Albert Bouchard is a genius!

Sunday morning we took our time getting up and assembled for breakfast around 9:00 AM. We went to a place that Camille had wanted to go to on an earlier trip to no avail because of crowds. This time of year there are far fewer crowds and we were seated at the Corner Cafe immediately.

After a great breakfast in a room warmed by a cast iron stove, we headed for Rosecliff, the third on our tour of mansions. What a delight! This one is described as follows: "Commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899, architect Stanford White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. After the house was completed in 1902, at a reported cost of $2.5 million, Mrs. Oelrichs hosted fabulous entertainments here, including a fairy tale dinner and a party featuring famed magician Harry Houdini.

"Tessie", as she was known to her friends, was born in Virginia City, Nevada. Her father, James Graham Fair, was an Irish immigrant who made an enormous fortune from Nevada's Comstock silver lode, one of the richest silver finds in history. During a summer in Newport, Theresa met Hermann Oelrichs playing tennis at the Newport Casino. They were married in 1890. A year later, they purchased the property known as Rosecliff from the estate of historian and diplomat George Bancroft. An amateur horticulturist, it was Bancroft who developed the American Beauty Rose. The Oelrichs later bought additional property along Bellevue Avenue and commissioned Stanford White to replace the original house with the mansion that became the setting for many of Newport's most lavish parties."

This home was not as huge as the Breakers, but it was beautifully designed and the designers were clearly focused on entertaining when they laid it out. Our guide was superb, which added to our enjoyment of the tour.

As we headed back toward Stratford, Paul mentioned the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, often called the "Home of American Impressionism." We stopped there and enjoyed a beautifully presented collection.
We then dined at the Old Lyme Inn (I'm titling my new book Eating my Way Through New England) and then proceeded home.

I've added these places to my list of places that I've got to bring Mary Ann to (in better weather).

Jan 7, 2008

The New Ebabe Building Rises!!!

Mary Ann's eBay business has taken over the house! What started out modestly has grown into a serious enterprise. We finally decided we had no choice but to put up a building to accommodate the business. While we're putting up the building, there are a few other projects that needed doing -- new driveway, patio, retaining wall, lawn grading, etc.

I thought you might enjoy a few pictures of the progress...