Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Projects & Fun

Days this week have dawned clear and colorful. The whole family has been in residence and activities, cooking extravaganzas and games of various sorts fill days and evenings. I do love the holiday season and this one has been an especially jolly one. Quinn is fully aware of what's going on for the first time which makes it all the more magical for the rest of us. He has been so enthusiastic and curious.

We made most of the gifts we gave this year. It has become a kind of family tradition. For each of the adults we made pendant blank notebooks. They are about 3" high and hang around the neck with a leather tie. The idea is to always have a place to jot down a phone number or other piece of information when you're on the fly. They have removable/replaceable pages. This one is covered in suede. We had a great time figuring out how to attach the loops and fastener. We were pleased to find some very small but nice pens in our local stationery store.

For James I made a satchel out of some beautiful quilting patterns I found in our local fabric store. I made a pocket inside and found an antique scout compass and whistle on ebay to put inside it. I also added a handmade book cover in which I placed a 1950's era scouting guide to camping and trail blazing.

For Emily I made a purse and book. The purse is made, on the striped side, out of a sweater I bought with her years ago in California. She has one just like it. I felted the wool earlier this year and it is now a nice soft fabric. The turquoise side is from an angora scarf I had. I stamped a couple of images on hand-dyed linen fabric and then embroidered them onto the front and back. I love applique and embroidery, although I've never really learned how to do it beyond a few basic stitches. It's one of my New Year's resolutions, to experiment with it. The big red flower stamp is one Emily bought me as a gift from the Victoria and Albert Museum Store when we were in London together last April. It's a genuine Indian fabric pattern stamp. The trim at the top of the bag is an antique one I bought with Emily at the flea market in Paris a few weeks ago. The book is covered in a paper Emily brought me from Italy some years ago. It has strips of bright paper sewn onto the base off-white sheet. The book has favorite recipes in it.

For Quinn we made a game called "A Visit to Nana and Bobo's House." We mounted a large scale photo of our house and pasted it onto foam core. It stands about 18" high. We printed out more photos of some of the family members and mounted them on foam core as well. Rick made nice wooden stands for everything. So it is stable on the floor or a table.

We also made him a finger puppet theater. I found a fantastic site where you can download a huge variety of copyright-free images. They have this wonderful old theater image there.

We love puppets in our family. I bought this old puppet theater in Prague when we visited there several years ago. Quinn is getting old enough to begin enjoying making and watching shows.

On Christmas morning we had fun watching Quinn discover his new toys. Here three boys are fascinated by a wooden robot whose limbs rotate around on elastic cord which allows the robot to contort himself in various funny positions. I can't tell here who's enjoying it the most.

Often on Christmas either James or Emily thinks up some original activity for the family. This year Jos and Emily created a magical crafts fair in the atelier. They secretly set it up on Christmas Eve and invited us down to participate in it on Christmas afternoon. Emily had purchased all kinds of luscious supplies, lots of fabrics, buttons, ribbon and notions from La Droguerie in Paris (a fabulous resource) as well as fancy papers, clay, pottery paints and various other items so we could have a family crafts party. James, Emily and I spent quite a lot of time in the studio making various items.

Quinn joined us occasionally as well. He painted a butterfly mask and a big cardboard "Q". He made some clay animals. My favorite was a Fimo leopard with orange sequin spots which he carefully arranged.

James worked on making a tie for Adric, who wasn't able to join us this holiday season.

It turned out very well. Emily made some very cute brown corduroy pants for Quinn. I made a little purse and a pencil pocket.

Our traditional Christmas meal is a plateau de mer. This year Jos and Rick also made watercress soup. It was delicious.

The day after Christmas was bright and sunny and we took a walk in the woods. Jackets began to be peeled off as we strolled through the sunnier parts.

Quinn tried out his new "early rider" bike which was waiting for him under the tree on Christmas morning. He got the hang of it very quickly.

The new year is right around the corner and I intend to have a slightly different format for the blog beginning next week. It's always good to have a few New Year's resolutions and to use the energy to start something afresh. Wishing all of you a very happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Thanksgiving came and went at the Maison Conti without notice. It's not that we didn't mark the day with the usual gratitude for family, friends and our happy life, but no special meals were cooked in honor. Since moving to France we have generally celebrated Thanksgiving with a Saturday after dinner, which we share with an American friend of Emily's, Alex Tallen (Maison Conti cooking instructor) and her family. This year, however, both Jos and Alex's husband Aurelién were not available in November. The earliest time everyone could gather was the weekend before Christmas (that is to say, this last weekend).

Emily met Alex at George Washington University in 1997 when they were both freshmen in the theater program there. They discovered that they had a lot in common. They were born two days apart, they were both interested in acting, were vegetarians and loved cooking, and they both spoke French. The commonalities continued as life went forward. They both married European actors (Jos is Belgian and Aurelién is French) who are older, established in their respective careers, and both Emily and Alex moved to Paris and live just a few minutes walk from one another. Alex has a son Marlowe, who is 7 now, but Quinn and Beatrix, Alex's second child, were born just two weeks apart and are in the same class at the same bilingual school. Of course, we've adopted this family ourselves and Marlowe and Bea may as well be a couple of extra grandchildren.

As usual, the menu planned for the evening was an extravaganza of gourmet delights:

Roast pheasant
Cornbread stuffing with jalapeno and butternut squash
Cranberry pear chutney
Roasted cranberry sauce
Cranberry apricot and cardamon sauce
Autumn slaw
Brussels sprouts with shallots and mustard seeds
Kale with red onions and garlic butter
Sweet potatoes with garlic oil and fried sage leaves
Wild mushrooms with chestnuts and thyme
Mashed garden potatoes
Fresh baked dinner rolls
Apple cranberry crumble
Pumpkin ice cream

Alex is a professional chef, having earning a degree at the acclaimed Ritz-Escoffier Culinary School in Paris, and has worked in the kitchens of some acclaimed Paris restaurants.

Emily is a passionate amateur cook with a shelf full of wonderful cookbooks. We were in very good hands.

From the above photo of Emily cooking you can't see the advanced stage of her pregnancy. I love how the maternity styles these days don't shy away from letting the belly show its true shape! She'll be welcoming her little one early in the new year.

The third in the kitchen crew was James. He was able to get away from England a little early this year and has a couple of weeks to spend with us. Here he is with a basket of herbs fresh from the garden.

Aurelién works for the Comédie Française as a repertory actor. He also is a film and television actor. In fact he just began shooting a made-for-television movie in which he stars as both the president of France and an actor. He showed us photos of his make-up as the politician and he was completely unrecognizable.

We've known Marlowe since he was a baby and we've enjoyed watching him grow up. He is at a particularly charming age. Maison Conti is a place he's visited several times before, so he does not feel shy or ill at ease in any way. Children tend to love our big old rambly house. It's a little bit magic. Marlowe said to me at one point during the weekend, "You're very lucky to live in a hotel." At the end of the weekend both he and Quinn were reluctant to leave.

Marlowe was eager to help out with dinner preparations. Rick and he dug up the potatoes for the mash, which was Rick's assignment.

Marlowe, when not helping, was building boats. He became intrigued by a piece of bark he found in our wood pile and solicited Rick's help in designing a sailboat.

He was very pleased with the results and went on to make three others on his own.

They worked very well. He tested them all out in our fountain. They floated and stayed straight up, not listing from side to side as handmade boats sometimes will. I asked him if he had a place to sail them at home in Paris and he replied "my bathtub."

With Marlowe's help, Rick built a fire in our downstairs fireplace. I love it when there is a fire there. It's so cozy and warm.

Quinn and Bea are best of friends. And sometimes rivals. We had lots of running games, words of praise and love "Bea, are you wonderful?" "I love you, Quinn," and a fair number of rows as well. "Mine!" "No, mine!"

Before dinner some of the men folk reposed chimney side and talked while the rest of us served up.

The Autumn slaw was a particularly beautiful and delicious dish. It has raw beets, sliced very thin, red cabbage, apples, pomegranate seeds, hazelnuts and a dressing that is out of this world. It's from A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell, which has been mentioned before on this blog. It is a cookbook well worth having!

The spread was beautiful and copious, as always when planned by Emily and Alex. The plenitude was all from healthy foods, so one could enjoy it without guilt.

We ate in the downstairs dining room with another fire blazing and our holiday decorations here and there making for a festive event.

We were ten happy and well-satisfied people. I don't think I've ever had a better home cooked meal in my life. Call it Thanksgiving, call it pre-Christmas, whatever it was it was memorable.

A British director, who is working with Jos, sent him two huge bundles of forced narcissus as a Christmas gift all the way from London. Jos brought them along and they perfumed the whole room, promising spring to come!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Visit a Paris Market

We are still in Santa's workshop mode here at the Maison Conti. The wind is howling outside the windows, but we're staying cozy and warm in the studio while we work away at projects for our holiday giving. Nothing yet to reveal!

In the meantime, I saw this wonderful video on David Lebovitz's blog and I thought you would enjoy it. He worked at Chez Panisse for many years and now lives in Paris. He's always cooking up something delicious.

Paris Market from David Lebovitz on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In the Seasonal Spirit

'Tis the season to be jolly and also quite busy! How to share a few recollections from the past week? Briefly! We've launched Santa's workshop here at the Maison Conti, and all the elves are busy busy all the day long. Outside the sun comes and goes, the clouds open and close and yet we hardly notice, huddled, as we are, beside our roaring fire with busy hands and messy table tops.

We're making cards and gifts, projects which simply can't go public at this time.

We have the seasonal accoutrements gathered about us. I've ordered string and ribbon and wonders of every kind from the amazing suppliers on Etsy. So much is available out there!

We've barely begun to decorate the house for the season, although we did buy our charming little tree. As yet it sits in a corner rather expectantly.

I put out this wonderful merry-go-round book on the gueridon in the entry way (I love this French word for a round table. It's pronounced gary-don). It's a big book so is not often on display. Emily gives me a beautiful book like this almost every year. I love them all.

Daily there have been trips to the post office...I've had quite a few orders from my Etsy store. This is the busiest time of year there, of course.

Have a hoppy week!