Clara’s Grand Tour – Glynis Ridley

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This is a lovely little book that follows a rhinoceros – the eponymous Clara – as she travels around Europe in the mid Eighteenth Century. It was one of my Christmas presents from les petites, so I spent yesterday devouring it, in between cooking dinner and unwrapping presents.

I loved the outlandish concept of this book, and some of it’s vignettes were irresistibly funny – hair dressed “à la rhinocéros” anyone? Or the ruler who wanted a life sized porcelain menagerie to be housed in a new wing of his palace, which was also to be made entirely of porcelain? But it seemed hampered by the lack of primary evidence, the enterprising sea captain who escorts Clara is a rather sketchy character, and there are too many “must have” and “would have” moments that didn’t seem backed up by much evidence at all. In particular, I felt that the constant worry about who owned the rights to Clara’s image was a rather…. modern concern, and there didn’t seem to be much to evidence to support it. In some ways I think (in my rôle as cantankerous amateur historian) the book might have worked better if it had focused more on the detective work done by the author, and less on presenting the possibilities as certainties.

However, at the time Clara fascinated everyone from the fervently religious (was the behemoth from the Book of Job a rhinoceros?) to the most enlightened exponents of Natural History, and the book is a charming little study of Eighteenth Century society. Well worth a read.

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Warm winter salad

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This is one of my favourite midweek meals, salad with seared chicken and a warm dressing. Fruit in savoury dishes is one of the things I love, so in winter I usually add dried fruit and toasted nuts. Today I used apricots and pistachios with a balsamic reduction – warm and comforting, but pretty healthy too.

Since taking the photo, I’ve realised I was in such a rush that I’ve put the place setting the wrong way around – whoops!

Aren’t pistachios the most beautiful nuts in the world!

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The Trouble with Modern Art

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I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a fan of modern art. I realise this makes me a staid and boring traditionalist, but I just cannot find deep meaning in something created by random paint splatters, or the ugliness of cubism. Banksy’s work has a leavening dash of wit and political awareness, but even then it’s amusing for a moment and then has no further interest. And as for unmade beds and urinals put in galleries, they have long since lost all novelty value. Even the works of Monet and the other impressionists often look crude and childlike next to a Leonardo or a Michelangelo.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, there are one or two artists who are making me reconsider the genre. They’re not terribly well known, but they do things which are new and interesting, without sacrificing beauty on the altar of shock value. In short, they create paintings I would happily share a home with.

The first is a young artist called Robin Eckardt. She creates dazzling mixed media pieces on a grand scale – she has a website here, but the gallery shots really don’t capture the depth of colour or the detail of such huge works. It’s absolutely worth seeking out her shows if you can. The first painting of hers I saw was this one at an affordable art fair, and it stood head and shoulders above everything around it. More recently I’ve been drawn to what she calls her “grown-up” style paintings like this one – the way she can capture the shimmering colours of water in resin is really quite remarkable. The only thing that has so far stopped me investing is that my adorable little country cottage would struggle to physically accommodate a six foot long painting!

The other is Peter Brown, an en plein air artist who is often found painting on the streets of my home city of Bath. A few years back he did a little series of “unfinished” oils, which were partly painted in his usual free, slightly impressionist style, but incomplete with paint dripping down the remaining exposed canvas and some penciled notes of how he felt about the scene he was painting. They were really quite charming, like peeking into his sketchbook, and they captured something of the atmosphere of Bath as a place; but sadly I haven’t been able to find any images of them online! If anyone spots them please do get in touch….

Cardamom scented hot chocolate

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Winter is my favourite season. I could claim it’s Christmas that makes it so lovely, or the fashion – long leather boots, hats and elegant floor length gowns… But I’d be lying. The real reason I love winter is because I can sit by a roaring fire, listening to the rain lashing the windows, with a good book and a large mug of hot chocolate. Bliss…

I’m fussy about my hot chocolate though, I like it very rich and very dark. If I’m in a hurry, San Cristobal’s rich drinking chocolate is the next best thing to the ritual of slowly melting dark chocolate into the milk.

My favourite spice to add at the moment is cardamom, and three bruised cardamom pods per cup seems to be about right. Pop them in the milk before you start to heat it up, and they’ll have infused nicely by the time you’re ready to drink the hot chocolate. A teaspoon or so of rosewater added right at the end is a lovely variation too – it makes the chocolate taste a little sweeter somehow.

I found this recipe for cardamom and orange hot chocolate today, and it is absolutely ravishing. The orange zest adds a lovely, subtle bitter note.

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In the beginning, there was the salon…

It’s a beautiful frosty day, and with the year drawing to a close I’m curled up by the fire feeling reflective. I adore the concept of the eighteenth century salons – the mix of high culture and scientific ideas with the more frivolous side of life. Art, literature and science all enrich my life immeasurably, but so do good food, beautiful surroundings and fashion.

So I thought I’d share my experiences and the things that make me happy here, whether it’s my latest read, an interesting new discovery, or a particularly lovely new dress; and try to create my own little salon. Of course a key part of any salon is the company, so I’d love to hear from you too. If something I write strikes a chord (or not!), or you’d just like to share an interesting tidbit then please do leave a comment or drop me a note.