Archive for the ‘Ben Pentreath’ Category


What a wonderful reading weekend I have had – and Sunday still awaits!  But I knew it was going to be good when two of the books I have been most excited to read this fall arrived at my library late Thursday.  It was as if the universe knew I was taking Friday as a half day off work and so was in need of wonderful reading material to fill the empty hours (or, those hours that weren’t going to filled by my optometrist appointment – after all, I hadn’t known the books were coming and I couldn’t let a half day go to waste).  And Saturday obliged with torrential rains which (I learned the hard way) are not meant to be enjoyed out of doors but instead wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, book in hand.

My Berlin KitchenI started with My Berlin Kitchen, a memoir with recipes (like Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris or Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life), by Luisa Weiss, who blogs as The Wednesday Chef.  Right after my optometrist appointment, I walked over to one of the nearby restaurants, ordered my lunch, and settled down with the book.  I was not waiting until I got home, no sir.  The book, needless to say, got far more attention than my food.

Weiss was born in West Berlin to an Italian mother and an American father.  After her parents divorced when she was three, she spent her early childhood living with her father in Boston and then moved back to Berlin when she was ten to be with her mother.  As an adult, she worked in publishing in New York but it was Berlin she longed for, though it took her a while to realise that and longer still to find her way back.  A product of so many different cultures and with so many different homes to turn to, food was a way for Weiss deal with her homesickness – whichever home that might be.

The most relatable portion of the book, for me, was the section dealing with her confusion during her late twenties as she tried to figure out what it was that was missing from her life, despite the excellent job in her chosen field and committed long-term boyfriend.  Weiss describes herself as “a responsible person, possibly even a square.  I always eat my vegetables.  I never have that third glass of wine (in fact, rarely even that second one).  I get palpitations if I’m not punctual.  And I tell my parents everything.  Sometimes I think this stodgy obedience is the honorary German in me, the stuff that rubbed off on me by osmosis.”  I know how hard it is for that kind of person (being one myself) to admit that all the things you had planned for yourself – and achieved – aren’t actually what you need.  I am always filled with admiration when, having figured out what they actually do want and need, people go out and get it.  (I am still at the figuring out stage myself.)  And that is exactly what Weiss did; she moved back to Berlin, got a book deal on the strength of her success as a blogger so she could do the work she loved, and rekindled a romance with her first love.  Interspersed through this story are her wonderful, incredibly tempting recipes.

Weiss admits that German food does not have the romance of French or Italian cuisine – especially given the hoards of food books or mid-life memoirs screaming in praise of those two countries – and though she spends plenty of time cooking Italian, American and various other types of food, she does do her best to make the case for German food.  For me, this is preaching to the choir.  I adore eating in Germany.  I used to travel to Europe in the spring after university let out and I would always arrive in Germany in time for Spargelzeit, when white asparagus would be in every restaurant, prepared every way you could imagine.  Now, when I visit in the late summer I enjoy pflaumenkuchen (which is less exciting since we make it at home all summer) or  feast on mushrooms when I drop by in the autumn.  Delicious.  So it is no surprise that Weiss’ descriptions of her German meals were my favourites, especially this passage about breakfast offerings:

As for the Germans, well, their breakfasts are legendary.  Groaning boards piled high with thin slices of cheese, hams – boiled, smoked, and cured, sliced cucumber, boiled eggs, tomato wedges, coarse and smooth liverwurst, butter and Quark, plum butter and red currant jelly, all meant to adore slices of dark, grainy Vollkornbrot or freshly backed crusty rolls split in half.

And, at this time of year especially, we must acknowledge that Germany knows better than any country how to celebrate a proper Christmas.  But this is not casual cookie baking; this is a serious production:

I made chewy little squares of gingerbread studded with candied citrus and snow-white anise-flavoured domed cookies that disappeared with a quick crunch.  Meringue-topped hazelnut stars that crackled lightly under out teeth, nuggets of almond paste adorned with peeled almonds and baked until glazed and toothsome and snappy, spiced butter cookies shaped into narrow rectangles and decorated with a scatter of slivered almonds.  Not to mention rich, winey fruit bread, damp, dark, and mysterious, and dense, buttery Stollen coated in a thick layer of powdered sugar.

I spent all day Saturday fighting the urge to go to the store and start buying the ingredients for some of her Christmas recipes – I have enough Czech Christmas cookies that I need to start on without adding these!

I have been busily copy recipes out of the book in anticipation of returning it to the library – Flammkuchen!  Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Sauce!  Those Christmas cookies that I say I shouldn’t make but am still ridiculously tempted by! – but that is only a temporary solution.  I need to own this book.

English DecorationAnother book I need to own, that other much-anticipated book that came into the library with My Berlin Kitchen, is English Decoration by Ben Pentreath, which I curled up with on Saturday afternoon.  If you are not already following Pentreath’s Inspiration blog, you should be.  I have severely culled the number of design-focused blogs that I follow but his I will never drop.

English Decoration is a celebration of English (and Scottish and Welsh) rooms where, in Pentreath’s words, “the personality of the owner is […] woven into every fibre.”  These are not grand estates nor have they been “done” by hired decorators.  They are homes, usually of Pentreath’s friends, that have been decorated over time and, most importantly, have been thoroughly lived in.  There are newspaper clippings and notes pinned up on walls and scattered across dressers; kettles, toasters and sugar bowls have been left on kitchen counters; and magazines are piled high on the floor underneath side tables.  These rooms have clutter of the most functional, attractive sort and they all express their owners’ preferences and personalities.

The book is divided into chapters by types of room: foyers and halls, sitting rooms, kitchens and dining rooms, bedrooms, etc.  It is an image-heavy book (there is nothing more disappointing than a book about interiors that is text-heavy) but the real joy for me came from reading the descriptions that accompany each photo, seeing everything through Pentreath’s eyes.  It is easy for me to look at a photo and say “I like that” or “I hate that” but I don’t learn much doing that and I do so want to learn.  Going through the book more slowly, taking the time to actually read it, helps me to appreciate even more the rooms I like and to consider more closely the rooms I am not immediately drawn to and the reasons why that is.  Happily, this book is full of rooms I loved and the photos by Jan Baldwin are wonderful.  Still, of all the houses featured, I think Pentreath’s own Dorset home remains my favourite:

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

Needless to say, I will be handing out an updated Christmas list to my family with these two books added.

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