A Curious Miscellany

Pink Lady

With all of this back-to-school/work hustle and bustle, I know what we need: a drink. And, what (literally) sweeter medicine is there than a Pink Lady? This classic gin-based cocktail has several variations. Elsie de Wolfe (1865 – 1950), the influential American interior designer often credited for the invention of the cocktail, used the following recipe: 1/3 gin, 1/3 grapefruit juice, 1/3 Cointreau. But, most cocktail books and bartender guides from the 1920s and 30s list a Pink Lady as being made with these ingredients shaken together with ice: glass of gin, several dashes of grenadine and an egg white.  Occasionally a splash of lemon juice was called for or a cherry as garnish, and down in New Orleans, the Pink Lady transformed into a Pink Shimmy with just a splash of sweet cream. Hollywood blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield was said to have one every night before dinner in her pink palace on Sunset Boulevard. Cheers, dahlings!

Advertisements

Mouche

Mouche means “fly” in French and was the name given to the artificial beauty marks crafted from chiffon, taffeta and velvet worn by the French and English bon ton of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Wearers would even tote around their beauty marks in special boxes (bôite à mouches). The facial placement of the beauty marks, in addition to hiding an unseemly blemish, served to convey secret messages…though most seem to express more or less the same sentiment.

Madame Du Barry, a courtesan of Louis XV, supposedly defined these mouche positions:

On the lip……………. Mischievous
Near the lips………… Flirtatious
Below the lip………… Discrete
Corner of the eyes….. Passionate
On the forehead…….. Dignified
On the cheek………… Amorous
On the smile line……. Playful
On the nose……….…. Impudent
Near the nose……….. Indecisive
On the chin………….. Cheerful
Above the breast……. Generous

That makes me naturally indecisive (true!), amorous and doubly flirtatious.

Pencil

The pencil was born shortly after the discovery of a large graphite deposit in Cumbria, England around 1500. Initially wrapped in sheepskin, graphite eventually found its home in a wooden encasement in 1560 when an Italian couple, Simonio and Lindiana Bernacotti, thought to hollow out a piece of juniper wood and insert a stick of graphite (today incense cedar is typically used). The hexagonal shape came in the early 1800s by an American pencil mill owner, (I kid you not) Ebeneezer Wood. In 1858, the pencil was crowned with an eraser and by the end of the Nineteenth Century, it donned for the first time its golden yellow robe.  Though perhaps dull and nothing special to us today, that particular shade of yellow was actually meant to evoke the romance of the Orient—copying the color of Manchu imperial dress—at a time when a new and richer deposit of graphite was found on the Siberian-Chinese border. As for the graphite itself, most pencils today are made from a mix of graphite powder and clay. They come in twenty plus grades, with a usual range from hard to soft: 9H being the hardest, HB being medium (Our No. 2 pencil is HB) and 9B being the softest. For the record, pencils were never made with lead though when graphite was discovered it was thought to be. In fact, the lead poisoning culprit was actually the yellow paint.

Yvette Guilbert

These long black gloves belong to the one and only Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944), French cabaret star during the Belle Epoque. Guilbert made the rounds in the prominent Parisian establishments of the time (Eldorado, Jardin de Paris and Moulin Rouge) and was known for her raunchy patter or spoken songs, which caused her to be labeled sometimes as a diseuse (sayer) as opposed to a chanteuse (singer). Some say that Guilbert’s fame was especially due to the portraits of her by artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who even dedicated two entire portfolios of lithographs to her image. Of her signature style Guilbert explained, “In the beginning, I was extremely poor and since black gloves were the cheapest, I chose those. As much as I could, however, I wore them with light-colored dresses. I wore [the gloves] high so as to show off my slender arms and accentuate the elegance of my long neck.” While performing, she would remain almost completely still, gesturing ever so slightly with her arms, and occasionally lifting her pinky finger. In the 1920s, Guilbert wrote L’art de chanter une chanson (How to Sing a Song), which is still in print today. Its opening line reads, “This little book is written with the purpose to help those who – mistaken about what is Art – will vainly struggle against their proper ignorance.”

Lenticular Clouds

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a UFO? No! It’s a lenticular cloud (or if you want to be nerdy about it: altocumulus lenticularis). These slow-moving, often stationary, lens-shaped clouds are most typically formed at high altitudes, near mountain ranges and hilly areas, where moist air creates a series of standing waves as it flows over the peaks to the downwind side. Lenticular clouds become even more dramatic when irisation (the formation of irridescent colors from the diffraction of sunlight by water droplets in clouds) occurs near their edges.

Beam me up.

Granita

The granita is a semi-frozen dessert made of water, sugar and a flavoring ingredient (lemon, almond, coffee, pistachio and mint are the most traditional granita flavors) that hails from Sicily. The history of the granita begins back around 900 AC. The story goes that when the Arabs conquered Sicily, they brought with them a recipe for “sherbeth”, an iced drink flavored with fruit juice and rosewater. In Sicily, the recipe was updated by taking the snow from Mount Etna, storing it in nivieri, literally “snoweries”, and in the summer, scraping the ice blocks that formed and serving it with local fruit juices and spices. (Hello shaved ice!) In the 16th century, the Sicilians invented the pozzetto, basically a hand-cranked mixer (Hello ice cream!), where the snow was used not as a final ingredient but was mixed with marine salt and churned around an internal chamber that housed the other ingredients, thereby freezing and crystallizing them. To this day, Sicily is famous for its granitas. The east side of the island prepares them with a smooth consistency, almost like a sorbet, whereas the granitas from the west are more coarse. Favorite accompaniments to a granita are a brioche and/ or a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

Lake Cuomo

Lake Cuomo (Lago di Como or Lario in Italian and Larius in Latin) is Italy’s third largest lake after Garda and Maggiore, yet one of the deepest lakes in Europe with a depth of about 410 meters/ 1320 feet and easily one of the most popular. Since Roman times it has been the summer stomping ground of the rich and famous; today of course George Clooney and his entourage have become a major attraction as well as (even if less so) Robert Pattinson from the Twilight series. Cuomo is characterized by it’s upside-down “Y” shape, dividing the lake into the Como side (left) and the Lecco side (right), with the towns of Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna situated at the intersection.  The Lake’s famous procession of grandiose villas hugs the western shore of the Como side. Villa d’Este in Cernobbio is perhaps one of the most famous getaways for multi-millionaires, meanwhile another of note, Villa Balbianello, served as the set for Star Wars (where Luke Skywalker falls in love with Princess Leia) and the remake of Casino Royale. Meanwhile the Lecco side is known for its mostly unspoiled nature.

Barbera

After Sangiovese, which is the main ingredient in Chianti wines, Barbera is the second most grown grape varietal in Italy. Though now planted worldwide, the best examples of Barbera are found in and around the Monferrato hills of Piemonte, the northwestern corner of Italy (particularly in Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti) where it is thought to have originated in the 1200s. Barbera’s main traits are its intense ruby color, notes of dark fruits such as plums, black cherries and currants, high acidity, and low levels of tannins, the later two deeming it a wine to be drunk young and historically giving it the bad reputation for being a table wine. Through the years, however, winemakers have been experimenting with the grape, aging it in oak barrels to balance out its flavor and harvesting it later so that its grapes contain more sugar thereby increasing the alcohol content in the fermentation process and making it a better contender for aging. Barbera wines are highly compatible with most dishes (pasta, pizza, white and red meat, parmesan), so it makes a perfect bottle of wine to share among friends when dining out. Salute!

Umbrella Pine

The Umbrella Pine (Pinus pinea), also known as the Italian Stone Pine, are tall, canopy-like pine trees native to the Mediterranean region. Anyone who has ever been to Rome has most likely noticed them near the Colosseum and Roman Forum. A visit paid in the summer months would have made it additionally probable that you even sought their shady protection from the severe Roman sun. In fact, it has been said that the Romans planted the umbrella pine throughout their empire along the roads to offer travelers a bit of respite from the heat of the day.  Umbrella Pines, however, offer more than just shade. They are also responsible for giving us pine nuts, the delicious buttery seeds that humans have been enjoying since the Late Stone Age.

Oyster Fork

The oldest known forks (we’re going back to Ancient Egypt here) were used as cooking utensils and typically had only two tines. It wasn’t until the 4th Century, with the Byzantine Empire (perhaps by way of the Persian Empire), that forks were used personally at the table and that the three or more tines became the norm. Thanks to a Byzantine princess who married a Venetian Doge in 1075 AC, the fork soon became widely used throughout the Italian peninsula, before traveling onto France by way of the Florentine Catherine de Medici and her court. By the 16th Century, it was popular among the noble classes and royal courts to carry a cadena, a small case for one’s own personal fork, when dining out. It still took another few centuries for the fork to reach and then catch on in Northern Europe and North America, but caught on it did…and then some. The Oyster Fork, a small utensil with three wide tines used to extract the oyster meat from its shell, is just one (though perhaps the most fanciful and the only fork allowed on the right-hand side of a table setting) of over fifteen forks now in existence. Its sisters include the Shrimp, Relish, Salad, Fish, Pastry, Dinner, Fruit and Dessert Forks, among others that, going back to their humble roots, assist more with cooking or serving than with dining (such as the Asparagus, Cheese and Cold Meat Forks).