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February 2011

Perfume Illuminated: Elderberry

"I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries." ----- Monthy Python and the Holy Grail


When I was a little girl my mother made me become a Brownie in the hopes that I would follow in my sisters footsteps and become a Girl Scout.  My mother had been a troop leader par excellence and was just thrilled that she had one more chance to do it again! She spent my Brownie year choosing amazing things for us to do and wonderful places to go.  I don’t remember most of it because it was all overshadowed by the one place she chose that was perfect.

One of her best friends when she moved into the Orange School District was a woman named Dolly Temple.  My mom was the youngest PTA  member and Dolly was the oldest, but the two looked at each other and became instant friends. It was because of the huge  Navajo Squash Blossom necklaces that each was wearing around their necks in a community that was a hotbed of diamonds and Mikkimoto pearls.  As my mother told it, she walked into this thoroughly stuffy group of very fine 50’s housewives and then there was Dolly.  She and mom gravitated to each other immediately because of the boldness of those necklaces  which at that time absolutely no one understood or valued.  My mother looked amazing when she wore her Indian Jewelry and so did Dolly. Both were incredibly strong, with  striking features and even stronger personalities. The Indian jewelry that neither of then were ever without simply mirrored the strident boldness that each of them carried within.  Both wore black during the day way before it was acceptable to do so!

They were just fabulous , the last of a generation of  the “they just don’t make broads like that any more”.

Dolly was a transplanted southern girl who owned 36 of the most incredibly beautiful  acres in Moreland Hills, complete with a gorgeous Georgian mansion,  horse barns, orchards and pastures. She raised the most beautiful Arabian horses and had several lovely little Welsh ponies.  

Dolly Temple was my first mentor, the very first women who ever put me on a horse.  My mother in an attempt to keep her youngest daughter interested in the “Silly Brownie Stuff” as I called it took us out to Dolly’s farm.  She should have known that it would be all over then . I took one look and was smitten.  The day came to cross the Brownie Bridge and approximately 5 minutes before it was to be my turn I looked at my mom and said, “I don’t want to be a Girl Scout…I want to go back to that place with the horses and learn to ride. “ My mother  simply smiled and called Dolly.  If she was disappointed she never let it show. Her generosity that day completely changed my life.

From that day on I practically lived at the Temples and at least 4 times I week I would go there after school, catch and brush the horses, saddle up the ponies, have my lesson and then go riding around her woods. I’d come into her house afterwards for homemade hot chocolate and huge slabs of crusty warm homemade bread with home churned butter.  Sometimes I’d walk in and she’d be plucking a duck or a chicken that she’d just killed herself and the end result that day would be the most incredible homemade chicken and dumplings which she served on lavish Royal Worcester plates with her mothers gorgeous sterling.


Once or twice I accidentally walked in on her in the middle of the butchering process, but I actually didn’t mind because she walked her talk. Nothing was wasted.  Dolly was very wealthy, but she did everything herself. She used everything that she raised from fruits and vegetables to the animals that she kept.  She taught me to forage on her property for food and was the first woman to teach me about the value of eating wild plants.  I adored her.  She had blueberries everywhere and raspberries and plum tree surrounding the riding ring. There were French chestnuts that lined one of the lanes and the pastures were filled with apples tree. Everything had a purpose and was in just the right place and she let me explore all of it as if I were here own child.

One day in the spring when I was riding   I noticed one of the most beautiful bushes that I’d ever seen. It was growing down along   the driveway and it was the filled with the heaviest clusters of creamy flowers that I’d ever seen ,  draping on beautiful purple stems with thick green leaves. It was also emitting a very strange musky sweet aroma that reminded me a bit of my grandmother not in a bad way, but more like a bottle of vintage violet perfume that’s turned a little bit dark and dirty. I later learned that the beautiful blossoms were Elderberry flowers and that the plant although most parts are filled with more than a little bit of cyanide was one of the most beneficial of the wild tonics.  Dolly made wines , cordials and syrups out her Elderberries and she also took some of those flowers and made wonderful  fritters, covered in a very light batter and dusted with a bit of confectioners sugar. They were amazing, the heavy flowers were delicious prepared that way although definitely not for anyone who suffers from a battle with seasonal allergies!

If you’ve access to some elderberries of your own you should try to make the fritters and at the very least the syrup! You can buy elderberry syrup in any Whole Foods and it’s indispensible during cold season for helping to beef up your immunity. One of the best tonics that I know of is a simple tea made from the syrup and a bit of chopped up crystallized ginger. I use this when anyone in my house is recovering from a nasty upper respiratory infection and it was my staple drink when I was down with a bout of pneumonia 15 years ago.  Something about the elderflower can inhibit a virus and truly shorten the duration of a very nasty flu by several days and I always keep some form of it in my  home apothecary.

St Germain

The very same syrup makes a wonderful iced tea in the summer laced with cinnamon and a bit of fresh mint. You can also use it to make a marvelous martini and a bit of elderberry syrup drizzled over berries and homemade vanilla bean ice cream is a wonderful treat. One of my favorite finds of the last several years is a golden liqueur from France made of Elderflowers named St. Germain. Although not nearly as heady and wild tasting as the homemade syrup it’s a delightfully fragrant addition to a glass of champagne.

If you’d like to try to make your own syrup you should definitely do so but remember that all parts except for the flowers and berries (including the seeds) are potentially toxic.  Start with a lot of the ripe berries (about 2 lbs of them) and cook them gently in about 4 cups of water until they are soft.  Some people put them through a food mill but I prefer to  GENTLY mash the berries and let the weight of them strain the juice through a chinoise or a fine mesh strainer. Put the juice back into a saucepan , add a cinnamon stick, some crystallized ginger and a cup or two of maple syrup. You can also use honey if you’d like or plain old sugar.  Gently reduce the syrup until it’s as thin or thick as you like, taste and bottle. That’s it. Make this once and you’ll never reach for another bottle of Robitussin again!

Now enjoy a bit of frolicsome fun with one of my favorite silly Brits, The London Forager as he makes some delicious elderflower champagne!



See that fabulous little Elderflower fairy over there flitting happily among the blossoms? She's come to lead you through the meadows to Roxana Villa's lovely gardens where I  do believe that she's prepared a wonderful fragrant adventure amongst the elderberry flowers especially for you! 




Elderberry Photograph courtesy of ThriftyLiving.net 

St. Germain Poster courtesy of St. Germain

 Lavinia Platter Courtesy of Replacements

Perfume Illuminated: Coffee



I have a confession! Yes ,  it’s true….If there were a 12 step program for coffee junkies I would probably be way overqualified. I have loved the taste and aroma of a wonderful cup of coffee for as long as I can remember.   Through impatience I have broken several French Presses, (my favorite way to brew a pot) and I have lived through the search for the perfect bit of Latte’ art which I find to be a fabulously fun affectation.  I have been known to drive miles out of my way to avoid a Starbucks.  I can’t help it, to me there’s just nothing more satisfying than a wonderful cup of perfectly brewed (not burnt) coffee, with just the right amount of milk and sugar and a touch of cinnamon. I’m pretty well a purist, no fancy syrup laden latte’s for me. My husband adores them, vanilla, pumpkin, caramel, you name it. He’s a coffee as dessert kind of guy and he’s definitely as sweet as all that.  I’m the kind of girl who when wandering about in Paris would still want a Gitanes with my espresso ,  a chocolate macaron and a little bit of Voltaire.  About as sweet as I get with a cup of coffee is the Mexican version that is served at my local cantina….a perfect blend of caramelized brown sugar, a bit of chocolate, a lot of fresh cinnamon and a  simple mocha java.


 Somewhere in the last 20 years though,  at least in America coffee has became more of a necessity than a pleasure .  Gone are the days when you had to make it yourself to have a wonderful pot of it, like my mother in law used to with her trusty percolator which made incredible coffee, now instead relaxing with a great cup of it, we can find it in every store and on every corner.  Coffee has ceased to be a creative and relaxing part of the day or a luxurious part of the morning,   a fact  which I find to be very sad.  I can remember when I was first dating my husband and he was living with his mom in Cincinnati  . Sunday mornings were relaxing and wonderful, as you’d wake up to a wonderful breakfast cooking, the newspaper spread out all over the table, Stevie Wonder blasting through the stereo and a freshly brewed fabulously aromatic pot of   Vietnamese with cinnamon coffee. 

Another one of my favorite places to eat breakfast and drink coffee is in New York City in the dining room of the Park Lane Hotel.  Here you can sit with a Sunday New York Times, look out the window onto Central Park and eat a wonderful breakfast. The coffee is superb, perfectly brewed and just the right temperature, served in a proper coffee cup and poured from a proper silver pot. Whenever I’m in New York this is how I start my day because relaxing in that gorgeous dining room readies me for a long day in the city.  On the other coast every morning my sister starts her day at the local indie coffee shop, with a delicious cappuccino and her LA Times before she goes down to her studio to paint.  This sort of treatment elevates a good cup of coffee to the level of soul experience, not simply a way to get though the day or a jumpstart to an overly fatigued body and mind. Sadly this is what we do with coffee these days and too much of it can burn out the adrenals and perpetuate the very exhaustion that we are trying to avoid.  I’d like to propose a return to the concept of coffee as a leisurely pastime that is restorative, one where we brew a pot of it, share it with a good friend and just take some time for ourselves almost in the same way that we do with a lovely cup of tea! We’d drink a lot less of it and the  moments  we spend in its company would go further to relax us body and soul. 

Coffee as a flavoring is superb! Most bakers know that the addition of a bit of brewed coffee to chocolate will enhance the flavor of the chocolate without masking it.  My mother used to make the most amazing chocolate mousse layered in a crystal trifle bowl with sherry soaked lady fingers , whipped cream and caramelized almonds. I once asked her for a taste of it before she added the coffee. She smiled , indulged me and it was then that I discovered the particularly delicious chemistry that these two ingredients share. The combination is a legendary one, think of Jamocha Almond Fudge Ice cream or tiramisu!  Mocha buttercream frosting ? Imagine the most devilish of possibilities but let’s just say that it’s not JUST for cake anymore!  On the savory side powdered coffee grounds make a fabulous dry rub for barbecued  beef , chicken or pork when mixed with salt and other spices like cinnamon, cumin  and  dried ancho chile and a little bit of espresso whisked into a barbecue sauce will help to give it a rich full bodied flavor !  A classic mole sauce can be jazzed up just a bit with the addition of a couple of tablespoons of strong , brewed coffee.


For a simple yet  amazing coffee syrup,  just take several cups of freshly brewed coffee and slowly reduce them with a cup or two of brown sugar and lots of cinnamon.  Don’t let it burn and what you’ll be left with is a wonderful  syrup that you can use in  coffee or chocolate martinis or even a deliciously old fashioned ice cream parfait!

An added benefit is that used coffee grounds are a fabulous fertilizer for all of your houseplants  and an excellent thing to add to your compost pile as they’re heavy in nitrogen and good for all  acid loving plants especially your tomatoes!

So grab your seed catalogs,  pour yourself a delicious cup of coffee, lace it with a bit of honey, cream and cardamom and float over to Roxana Villa’s deliciously Illuminated Journal to see what  she’s dreamt up for you. I hear murmurings of a Mocha perfume and I am beside myself with  passionate longing!



Coffee Photo by Beth Schreibman Gehring, Park Lane Dining Room courtesy of The Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, Photo of Tiramisu courtesy of http://calabriataste.files.wordpress.com