Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas in New Orleans

We flew down to New Orleans to stay with D&S for Christmas. M&N were joining us on Christmas Eve, so we had some time beforehand to collect stuff for our Christmas Day festivities. D&S had to work up to Christmas Eve, so we walked all around the area, taking the St Charles tram, too, some days. We explored all of Magazine Street, seeing all the quirky signs, the Mardi Gras bead decorations, sampling coffee and cakes at lots of establishments and enjoying the warmer weather than we had left behind in Guildford. We even went carol singing in Jackson Square.


S planned to cook a special French Christmas Eve dinner  for us all when M&N arrived, which we all looked forward to, but Delta let them down and bumped them from their connecting flight. This meant they arrived late on Christmas Eve, utterly shattered. S’s dinner was not wasted, though and we had beautiful boeuf en croute albeit without the other two. Christmas Day brought presents to open round the tree, then, as the turkey quietly roasted, we had a short walk. We found the house with all the bear decorations and decided we must come back to see it in the dark. D’s big surprise for us all was tickets for the Game on Boxing Day evening. This was between the Saints (Who Dat?) and the Atlanta Falcons. We rounded the day off, having eaten lots of turkey and Christmas pudding by walking around the amazing Christmas decorated houses on St Charles and the area in general, including the Bear house, too.


On Boxing Day we went downtown and collected a ‘small bus’ that we would all fit into and met up with M&N who had taken the tram down to the French Quarter for some sightseeing. It was so wet, that we dived into one of the little jazz bars, the Spotted Cat Music Club and listened to some jazz while sipping margaritas and beers. But we had to brave the elements to get to the stadium. Once inside, it is all inside – the Superdome is completely covered and the pitch is made of special artificial grass. It was all so friendly and people were pleased to help us understand the rules. Fans from both sides sat together, and some gently teasing went on, but nothing too serious – a real family atmosphere. We had a selection of traditional snacks to keep us going during the match along with local beers and generally had a great night out – especially as the Saints won. 


The next day we went off to walk in the Barataria bayou area. Here there are boardwalks through the swamp with plenty of wildlife to spot on the way. It was a beautiful day and we saw lots of creatures from butterflies and lizards to birds of prey and egrets. The Spanish moss wafted in the breeze and turtles sunned themselves on the trunks of trees. As soon as it was dark, we drove over to the Botanical Gardens where they had a light show. It was very busy, but once inside the crowd spread out and we could see all the amazing illuminations that covered most of the area.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Visiting Biltmore at Christmas

Biltmore is the house that George Vanderbilt created – a house in the country for his family and friends. It was opened to them on Christmas Eve 1895, so Christmas is a very special time at the estate. George, Edith and their daughter Cornelia lived at Biltmore and the family have continued to live there to this day. The present head of the family is Bill Cecil who runs the estate as a family business. The design of the house was inspired by the chateaux of the Loire valley, though it is generally thought that most was taken from the chateau at Blois.

 We arrived for our four day stay to warm, crisp weather and our rooms at Biltmore Inn were beautiful, with views across the countryside to the house and beyond. Almost as far as the eye can see, belongs to the estate – about 8,000acres. We enjoyed every minute of our stay, as we were busy all the time. Within walking distance of the Inn there is Antler Village, where we were able to take in the Winery tour. They deliver wine to almost every state in the US, but Louisiana was not on the list, what a shame. The wines were very interesting and we had fun tasting them. The extensive gift shop is very tempting as was filled with Christmas related items as well as gifts inspired by the Tiffany exhibition being held in  the museum. This was another date in our diary and we loved walking around the beautiful display of stunning lamps.  We would love to have bought some postcards as there was a ban on photographs, but none were forthcoming.

The first evening we took the visitor bus across to the House where we were treated to a candlelit tour of the interior complete with 57 Christmas trees – all lit and decorated to match their surroundings. Some rooms had several trees, colour matched to the décor of the room. And in the winter garden there was a choir singing with a harp and violin playing, too. What a magical experience; all warmth and light and nostalgia. The largest tree was in the vaulted dining room - almost reaching the ceiling that stretched up several floors. This had already been changed out once due to the tree dropping its needles, and they expected that it would be changed again before Christmas. All that effort of dressing, dismantling and dressing again takes place at night when the house is closed to visitors, from 9pm. It must take the best part of the twelve hours or so to have everything ready for the next day’s opening.
We also took the architecture tour during the day so we could climb high up onto the roof and take in the view across to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Apparently, the guests could take a two day journey to stay at the hunting lodge in these mountains, camping in the forest on the way, never leaving the Vanderbilt estate. It was a trek of some 15 miles taken on horseback and with waggons. Servants went ahead to prepare the camp as well as the Lodge for visitors. We also had a close-up view of masonry details, gargoyles and the gold leaf decorated copper roof that bears the Vanderbilt crest.

From the roof we could see the reflecting ponds and the beautiful conservatory. This meant a walk through the fine but slumbering gardens to the Glasshouse that was superbly decked out for Christmas with many poinsettias, decoratively leaved plants and subtle decorations.  Underneath is the garden centre with gardeners’ gifts for sale. We didn’t indulge as we were flying off again and those sorts of things would not fit in the luggage – oh for Terry Pratchett’s luggage with the many feet!

No trip to the Asheville area around Christmas would be complete without a visit to the Gingerbread completion and exhibition at the Grove Park Inn. This amazing place reminiscent of some Austrian hunting lodge only many times bigger is host to an enormous display of gingerbread creations for some six weeks over the holiday period. Anything goes as far as the gingerbread creators are concerned and we saw some mind blowing designs. The overall winner this year had created Old Mother Hubbard’s Shoehouse complete with laces, windows, doors, a roof and characters busying themselves inside the rooms.  A real feat of ingenuity. Others we liked were the mice and their sewing machine, a merry-go-round horse, a box of chocolates and a box of Christmas decorations not to mention some wonderful houses, too.

So  time flew by and after an evening of celebrating birthdays, wedding anniversaries and just being with friends in the Dining Room, we said our farewells and flew off to our various families to celebrate Christmas.

Biltmore Estate
Grove Park Inn
North Carolina

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Greenhouse, Mayfair

The Greenhouse is one of London's leading restaurants, situated in Mayfair. Antonin Bonnet is the Executive Chef and he draws on his French upbringing and training to produce beautiful food - both from the taste and the presentation point of view. This would be the perfect place for our celebration, so a table was reserved and we dressed for the occasion.

From the moment we arrived, the staff were attentive to every need. Moments after being seated we were offered a glass of champagne - with several to choose from. We decided on a English Nyetimber Première Cuvée, Blanc de Blancs 2001 that didn't disappoint and we were served a little paper container of root crisps to tip into a bowl containing a tiny cauli floret, a blob of mustard cream and some parsley oil. This we ate with a small spoon - amazing and delicious. The restaurant is not large - maybe twenty tables of various sizes. The decor is muted creams and beiges with sparkling white table linen and a twiggy mural on one wall where there is a banquette in lime green leather. Each table has a small object d'art artistically displayed - a classic torso, a discus or as in our case an artfully shaped piece of interesting, polished rock in a stand.
Menus came and specials explained, and we chose our meal. Then came the amuse bouche  - an egg shell filled with a warm egg yolk topped with a mango and roasted hazelnut cream.

We sipped our champagne and the sommelier advised us on some glasses of wine to match our dinner. First, a Meursault, Henri Boillot 2009 and then Domaine de Trévallon, Vin de Pays des Bouches du Rhône 2005. Fresh rolls of several varieties were served and two little half moons of salted and unsalted butter came on slate blocks - the salted with a tiny sprinkle of crystal salt to distinguish it.

Amazingly we both chose the same meal, so our starters came - the special of the day, scallops with black truffle wafer wrapped in green leaves on a bed of leeks and a champagne sauce.

To follow we chose grouse breast with black trumpets (a type of fungi) served with a creamy mash. Everything was really beautifully presented and tasted that way too. We sipped and savoured and enjoyed.

After a suiutable interval it was time to choose our desserts, this time we managed to pick different dishes - a pear millefeuille and a chocolate and hazelnut tart. And while we waited for these to appear, we refreshed our tastebuds with a little pineapple sorbet served with tiny cubes of pineapple and a coconut cream. We fancied a little dessert wine and found  a suitable one from the Loire, but unfortunately this wasn't available but a substitute Vouvray was suggested, a Domaine de la Fontainerie Vouvray "Coteau Les Brules" Sec 2003, which proved to be an excellent choice. 

 With our tisanes, petits fours were served and then it was time to order the taxi and eventually home. Our dining experience at The Greenhouse was superb - a very suitable way to celebrate.

The Greenhouse