Tuesday, March 30, 2010


A view of the garden at Villa Le Mura
The Villa Le Mura is located just outside the hill town of Panicale in Umbria. Normally we are in Panicale for an extended stay in an apartment within the walls of the town. We have spent many evenings on the balcony of Ristorante Masolino with the sun setting over the Umbrian plain to Lake Trasimeno. Often we would notice a large building at the base of the hillside highlighted in the setting sun. We were told that it was the Villa LeMura. So, on a short visit to Panicale last September we thought of LeMura and decided to stay there. The villa is like a page out of the past with modern comforts. The formal garden is serene and romantic.

The garden is a small scale 'grand garden' punctuated with statues and lovely terra cotta pots filled with lemon trees and palms.

The garden at the villa is quiet and welcoming. The formal garden is balanced by a more park like wooded garden. I noticed that in a shady corner of the garden a dozen or more pots of boxwood that had been started from cuttings.
We have learned a great deal from our visits to gardens in Italy, both the grand and the small 'pocket gardens' that can be found tucked behind houses in these hill towns. Italians are very good at using space and efficient with use of terracing. Sculpture, pottery and plant filled containers are used to create focal points and geometric garden layout defines formal spaces. We draw and take notes to assist us in bringing these ideas back to our garden in New Hampshire.

The medieval hill town of Panicale sits proudly surrounded by olive groves and lined by tall cypress trees.

A sketch that James did from the terrace looking down to the formal garden.

A View from the Terrace
After a caffe or cappuccino, mornings were spent on this terrace drawing the garden and the surrounding landscape, breaking of course for lunch, perhaps at La Porta in Montecchiello (Tuscany). After a remarkable lunch, time was spent drawing, exploring the town, and shopping. Late in the afternoon we would return to the villa with time for a swim. In the evening James and I would enjoy a glass of local wine as we watched the sunset before going to dinner in town.
One of our thoughts in staying at Villa LeMura was to bring a group here for an 'art tour'. This would be a wonderful place to spent time drawing and to visit the art treasures of Umbria and nearby Tuscany

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

IN THE KITCHEN: Salad of Mixed Greens and Roasted Red Peppers

Roasting peppers on the stovetop

Lunch in the winter is often a hearty soup. Lunch might also be leftovers of the previous night's dinner, which Julia Child wisely referred to as "feasting on the remains". With the change of season we begin to change our meals. In spring we might prepare a light soup and also turn our attention to salads.
As we order seed for the garden, we keep in mind the vegetables and herbs we like to have on hand for our kitchen in the coming months. This year we are growing several greens including arugula 'astro', wild arugula 'sylvetta,
romaine 'little gem', along with other greens. In the following recipe we chose to use what looked the best at the market, arugula and romaine, but any fresh greens will do. Roasted peppers have long been a favorite in our kitchen. Marinated roasted peppers are a simple and colorful side dish for grilled lamb or can be a salad unto themselves.

Roasting peppers: Place (3 )peppers over the flame of stovetop burner, leave there until outer skin is roasted. With tongs turn roasting each side of the pepper (it will look quite charred). Place the peppers on a plate and let cool. Once cool enough to handle cut off the tops and remove core and seeds. Slice each pepper in half and remove the charred outer skin from the peppers. For the salad cut strips about 1/2 inch wide. Place pepper strips into a bowl and toss with lemon & oil , recipe follows (or substitute a vinaigrette).
Lemon & Oil dressing: Squeeze about 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice into small bowl, whisk in about 3 tablespoons good olive oil, add pinch of kosher salt and grinding of pepper. Drizzle about 1/3-1/2 of the mixture over the peppers, toss and add the garlic. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, leave at room temperature for at least an hour, remove the pieces of garlic before serving. Taste, add salt if needed and chopped fresh herbs, such as basil.
Put salad greens in bowl, toss with lemon & oil mixture adding only enough to just lightly dress the greens, add salt, pepper and chopped fresh herbs. Olives, feta cheese, shaved parmesan, or any fresh and seasonal ingredient can be added.


It is late March, the snow has melted and it is time to get back to work in the garden. Raking leaves from beneath the birch we find daffodils emerging from the soil. We hear new sounds of returning birds and see a great blue heron fly over the tree tops. These are all signs of spring that we wait for here in New Hampshire.......and then there are the wild turkeys! In our yard turkeys often roost in the tall pines at dusk which is a spectacle to watch. Turkeys are not graceful flyers, they fly like overloaded cargo planes, heavy and cumbersome with wildly flapping wings. Watching this take-off it is hard to believe that they will reach upper limbs of tall pine trees, but so far in our observations these large birds have made it every time.
Each spring , as we crack open windows we begin to hear the gobble of turkeys, male turkeys. Through our windows we watch a group gather, both male and female. The 'toms' gobble and strut in full display trying to out do one another. This ritual is a sight, the male turkeys in full dress, with feathers fanned and bright blue heads, all to attract the attention of the females. The females often seem to feign indifference to these persistent courtship attempts!
Next time you see an image of a turkey in full display, it is not just about the decoration on the cranberry sauce jar.....the display is all about something else!. Yes, despite the apparent female
indifference, we will see chicks in June.
Spring has arrived in New Hampshire

Spring has arrived here in New Hampshire!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


An early star in our garden is the oriental poppy 'Helen Elizabeth'. This poppy has made several appearances on paper and canvas in our studios. The stunning color and graceful form makes it eye catching in the garden, and irresistible as subject matter for paintings.

An early star in our garden is the oriental poppy 'Helen Elizabeth'. This poppy has made several appearances on paper and canvas in our studios. The stunning color and graceful form makes it eye catching in the garden, and irresistible as subject matter for paintings.

The detail of the painting, Appledore: Still Life with Poppies, ( Johansson) shown above , is an example of one of those poppy inspired paintings. This painting is also a tribute to the gardener Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) and her garden on Appledore Island, part of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire. From vintage photographs of Thaxter's parlor it is known that she arranged flowers from her garden in glass vases, so I followed that direction in my painting. I read, and loved the idea, that she would start seeds in soil filled eggshell halves at her home on the mainland then carefully transport them by boat to the island where she planted them in her seaside garden. Thaxter, a poet, invited artists and writers to the island where she kept a cottage and her family had a hotel. The artist Childe Hassam (1859-1935), was a frequent guest on Appledore. Hassam painted the island and Celia's garden extensively, giving this place a lasting significance.

The garden has been restored and can be visited during summer months by contacting the Shoals Marine Laboratory at:
Just a note: Appledore Island is really worth a visit but better to go after the huge population of Black-backed Gulls have finished nesting!
Before a trip to Appledore Island we recommend reading the following two books.
One Woman's Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter,by Sharon Paiva Stephan
Childe Hassam, An Island Garden Revisited, by David Park Curry

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


The Last Supper, a fresco by Ghirlandaio is in the Ognissanti in Florence. Sitting in front of this painting I was taken by the composition using the wall as a backdrop to the seated figures, and the rhythm created by the trees behind the wall.

Each year during the blooming weeks, flowers are brought into the studio and quickly painted onto blank canvases. The painted flowers are more or less painted as if they are in vases....
not the most appropriate way to compose I admit. So, during the off season ( winter ) I try to figure in the rest of the composition, often I rely on the Italian (Tuscan & Umbrian) landscape to balance the vigor of the flowers. However, this device can be over used. It is very difficult to abandon beautiful valleys punctuated with cypress trees and red tile roofs, but I feel that repetition is becoming stale. I needed to get out of Italy (visually) so it seemed the best place to go was back to Italy. It was there that I think I found the clue.

It was in Florence when we were searching out paintings by the Renaissance master Domenico Ghirlandaio, that we came upon his fresco The Last Supper, in the refectory of the Ognissanti (Piazza Ognissanti). Here Ghirlandaio uses a wall behind the seated group and we see just the upper portions of trees against a sky visible above the wall. Why not try it? Paintings are very intricate puzzles and it is difficult to make ll the pieces fit.

By the way, when you are in Florence in need of a break,walk across the bridge Ponte Alla Carraia (not far from the Ognissanti), toward Piazza Nazario Sauro. Just after you cross the bridge, on your right is a good gelateria. Once you have sampled the gelato, make your way to Santo Spirito. For a great gelato, Bar Vivolo, after a visit to Santa Croce.

Monday, March 1, 2010


The first biscotti we had was several years ago in a small Italian bakery, The Modern, in Boston's North End. After tasting their Biscotti I knew I had to make my own, after all we don't get to Boston all that often, and back then parking was a nightmare.
I found and tried many different recipes, with butter and without. There were recipes that called for various types of added flavors and nuts,as well as different measures of flour, sugar and egg. All were good, yet different in texture and flavor. After following recipes, I began experimenting on my own, recalling the first biscotti I tasted in Boston, yet reaching for something slightly different. I think I found what I was looking for.
In Italy,meals are events, served in courses and meant to be savored . Ristorante, including the family owned Masolino's,in the Umbrian hilltown of Panicale, serve a small glass of Vin Santo,along with biscotti, or as it can be called, cantucci. We always enjoy this final touch that extends the meal just a little longer.
So here is our version of biscotti. Serve with coffee in the morning or at the end of a meal with a good Italian dessert wine. Enjoy!

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs (plus 1 additional egg to brush tops of loaves)
1 stick unsalted butter
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/4 cups whole almonds
2 tablespoons Sambuca ( a liqueur)
1 teaspoon vanilla
zest of 1 orange

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, including orange zest. Add butter to a mixing bowl and with an electric mixer cream until smooth, gradually add sugar, then add eggs one at a time,mix until smooth. Add Sambuca and vanilla. Add dry ingredients. By hand, mix in almonds. Turn dough out of bowl onto a floured surface. Dough will be somewhat sticky, form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes.
After chilling,transfer dough to a floured surface and divide into 3 equal portions. Form/roll each portion into a log shape (about 7"- 8" in length and 2" broad). Carefully transfer to prepared baking sheet, space about 2"-3" apart. Gently shape the log into somewhat more of a loaf form. Brush with beaten egg. Bake for 30 minutes (first baking). Remove and cool loaves on rack. When cool, slice the loaves on a diagonal, return to baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on rack. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.