Sunday, 31 March 2013

HT 5: Framed embroidered flowers

Time certainly flies. Tomorrow will be the first of April and I haven’t posted anything on my Handmade treasures series in March.

So here is one of my most recent flea market finds, embroidered poppies and forget-me-nots in frames painted in glossy black. By chance, these are two of my favourite flowers. But then again, the list of my favourite flowers would be such a long one almost any flower would qualify, at least if embroidered.

I don’t know yet where to hang this treasure. For the present, it is standing on my ‘sewing’ desk. It may stay there permanently to inspire me into action. I have some projects I should implement in the next couple of weeks. If these flowers can’t make it happen I don’t know what could.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Hit the brakes, dear!

When you happen to be passing a street view this gorgeous you’ve got to hit the brakes at once. He satisfied my request without hesitation so by the look of it he was impressed, too. I jumped out of the car overjoyed.

I had seen these trees in blossom before but never several in a row by a street. Their botanical name is Cercis siliquastrum and they are commonly called Judas trees (Juudaksenpuu) as Judas Iscariot is believed to have hung himself from such a tree. Another possible source for the name is the fact that these trees can sprout flowers directly from the trunk thus reminding of the suicide of Judas. 

According to a third, more likely, explanation the name may have derived from the French common name arbre de Judée, tree of Judea. Whatever the origin, I like the merciful message the common name seems to entail: the notorious traitor is allowed to lend his name to such a glorious plant often blooming around Easter.

Take a look at the building against which the trees cast their charming shadows. Its ornaments might take your thoughts to Italy but this one is from Catalonia, Spain. We were driving through the village of El Bruc at the foot of the Montserrat mountains some 50 kilometres inland from Barcelona. It was last year in late April and everything was so wonderful. Back home we probably still had some snow. This spring we certainly will have.

Life isn’t fair and time flies. That’s why you’ve got to hit the brakes whenever you see anything even remotely worthwhile.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Some wine cellars!

I’m back on my feet again and finally ready to return to Spain and Rioja wines. Some time ago I lectured about the different subregions of Rioja (here). You may remember that it was the Rioja Alavesa region in the Álava province of the Basque Country that produces the Rioja wines with a fuller body. In retrospect, it’s only natural that our guide on this Riojan trip – a friend who has now lived in Madrid for more than a decade – had booked the first winery visit for our group from the very top of Rioja Alavesa in the village of Elciego. In fact, we started from the very top of the whole realm of wine as the Herederos del Marqués de Riscal is considered one of the most admired wine brands in the world.

There certainly is much to admire. I already told about the above stunning Hotel Marqués de Riscal designed by Frank Gehry, built to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the winery a few years ago (here). We soon learnt that also everything else inside Riscal’s 10-hectare City of Wine is impeccable and state-of-the-art, both innovatively modern and impressively traditional. Even the well-tended plants and gardens as well as the uniform colour scheme of stone and the bright red of Rioja contributed to a feeling of efficiency and consistency.

The visitors were first shown a film outlining the history of the winery, which is the oldest in Rioja. The current Marqués de Riscal Don Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga is the great-grandson of Don Guillermo who founded the winery in 1858. He had studied wine-making in Bordeaux and so he adopted the techniques of the great French winemakers, including aging wine in oak and cutting cellars from stone. Rioja Alavesa wines are well suited for oak barrel aging thanks to their high acidity and good tannin structure, which provides good aging potential. We saw plenty of both oak barrels and vaulted stone cellars when walking the 90-min tour around the premises of the winery.

The timing of our visit, early November, turned out to be rather perfect. This season harvest had been in mid-October so the grapes were already destemmed and sorted but we were able to see some real action in the fermentation hall. Riscal uses a technique in which must is pressed out of the grapes. A few men were busy working on a dozen or so presses in one corner of the hall. It takes four hours to press one tub full of grapes as the process must be gentle to get the juices out of the grapes and grape skins without squeezing a single seed. We were later shown the outcome, a rigid disk or cake of burgundy leftovers that seemed to consist of little more than unbroken grape seeds.

There were more than 70 steel vessels or tanks ‘brewing’ in the huge fermentation hall. If I’ve understood the process correctly the must is kept in these tanks for a few days or a couple of weeks at the most so the workers were probably living the busiest time of the year inside the winery. The processes are monitored from a control cabin just like in any process manufacturing. (There was someone there but he happened to be stretching his legs away from the control desk.)

Next we went down and through a large hall with some oak barrels to another hall with a couple of dozen smaller steel vessels, then to a space with a few freshly filled oak barrels and a huge hall with pile after pile and row after row of oak barrels with young wine, 225 litres (59 US gal) in each.

The guide told that after the initial fermentation and maceration the winemakers will spend days tasting and choosing which wines will become ‘just’ Crianza (aged about one year in oak and one in bottle) and which will become those suitable for laying down for many years, that is Reserva (aged about 2 years in oak and one in bottle) or Gran Reserva (aged about 3 years in oak and a minimum of 3 years in bottle).

The following photos are from the cellar built in the 1880s that has recently been transformed into a highly modern space with two halls of oak vessels for the Reserva wines. This cellar also includes several majestic vaulted passageways with double rows of oak barrels. I was wondering whether they were brought to such a narrow and worker unfriendly spaces just for the visitors and whether the majority of the Reserva barrels were stored in another more modern space, too.

Lastly, we entered the original 1860s cellar and walked through dimly-lit vaulted passageways with more rows and piles of aging oak barrels. So I guess I was wrong about the worker unfriendliness. There we were allowed to have a look at the Cathedral of the winery, a barred cellar with a unique collection of wines from every vintage since the very beginning of the bodega. An impressive place, almost solemn. It was easy to understand why they had decided to term it cathedral and not cemetery like some wineries reportedly call their vintage cellar.

To top it all, some wine tasting followed but no photos about that. I was so shy I kept my camera in my pocket. Well, the tasting room at the far end of the wine shop behind the café was rather crowded as there were two groups of some 20 people each that had been attending the visit at the same time but with a guide of their own. It would have been impossible to shoot anything without including a number of strangers, which I wanted to avoid. And yes, the two wines tasted were excellent.

All in all, I highly recommend a visit to Marqués de Riscal’s magnificent winery if you ever travel to Rioja. It will be €10 very well spent. Advance booking is necessary but I noticed they have launched online booking on their website. In addition to Spanish, the tour can be given in English, French, German, Italian or Russian.

I know, this post became a tough one after all because everything was new to me. The other visits were to smaller wineries and thus I will have much less to report, I promise.

Some final facts about Marqués de Riscal:

·         One of the largest bodegas in Rioja currently controlling some 2,000ha (about 4,950ac) of vineyards, 1/4 of which are owned by the winery and 3/4 contracted from Elciego and neighbouring villages.

·         In the early 1970s, they added a white wine to their selection. It is produced in the Rueda region of Castilla y Léon out of 200ha (about 495ac) of their own vineyards and 250ha (about 620ac) of contracted vineyards.

·         Other Rioja brands owned by the company include Barón de Chirel and Marqués de Arienza. The bottle with the blue label in the above photo is Riscal 1860 Roble produced in the Duero region of Castilla y Léon.

·         Currently produces 12M bottles of wine annually, of which 60% is exported to more than 100 countries.

The village of Elciego seen from a square inside the City of Wine.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Just reminding

Do you have some candles on hand? Have you filled your oil lamps? You might need them to join Earth Hour tomorrow Saturday, March 23 at 8:30 pm.

We must unite to save our planet while we still can. An hour a year is not nearly enough but small deeds every day all year round might just make a difference.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Rest with roses

We’ve had several beautiful sunny days giving some promise of a true spring but the nights have been so freezing that progress has been minimal. The snow bed is hard and almost knee high everywhere around our place, which isn’t that bad for outdoor activities.

However, I’ve had to stay indoors because of some problems with my leg. I’ll tell more about that later, although sitting too many hours by the computer without taking proper pauses certainly didn’t help. Such carefree behaviour will defeat you eventually. So I’ve spent the last few days moving around from room to room and from sofa to sofa carrying with me the bunch of roses I bought on Saturday. If you have to lay low you’ve got to take whatever pleasure there is for you to take.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Francis and Catherine

On Wednesday, the world witnessed white smoke emerging out of a certain chimney in Vatican City. I must seize the opportunity to pop in Italy for a while as I hadn’t started blogging yet when we spent our latest holiday there one and a half years ago. (We are missing it!)

The new Pope of Argentinean origin, the first non-European Pope in almost 1300 years, took the name of Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, which was regarded as a promising sign. It remains to be seen whether the hopes for reform raised by his election will be met during his reign.

Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francesco d’Assisi) (1181-1226), also called ‘Il Poverello’ (the poor man), lived in poverty devoting his life to helping others and cherishing all forms of life on earth. As he is the patron saint of animals, environment and ecology, he is often depicted with a bird, a wolf or a fish. He founded the Franciscan Order and followed the teachings of Christ in Christ’s own way, not inside a monastery but preaching among people and giving up all worldly possessions. One of his important teachings was that you should not consider your way to be the only way to God. An ecumenical saint is a saint very much to my liking.

Saint Francis is one of the two patron saints of Italy, the other one being Saint Catherine of Siena (Santa Caterina da Siena or Catharina Senensis) (1347-1380). She is my favourite saint because she is female and often depicted holding a white lily, because I love Italy (and Siena and Rome, in particular), because she is also one of the six patron saints of Europe, and because she is the first one I ever learned anything about. And probably also because of the wonderful statue of her by Piazza Pia in the park surrounding Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome.

The statue is so beautiful and delicate, with the airy long cloak she is wrapped in and the lily in her hand. Seen from another angle, however, she seems to be carrying the weight of the whole world on her slender shoulders as the block of stone she is carved in has been left untouched at the back. This may very well be the sculpture I like the most of all that I have ever seen. Perhaps even more than the Michelangelos and Rodins.

The monument in white marble also includes four reliefs about the life of Saint Catherine. It was made by Francesco Messina and inaugurated in 1962 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of her canonization. Both the symbolism of the statue and the location of the monument at the end of Via della Conciliazione leading straight to St Peter’s Basilica celebrate her life most appropriately.

Saint Catherine worked to gain peace between the republics and principalities of Italy and the papacy that had remained in Avignon since 1309 because of the conflict between papacy and the French crown. She wrote to kings for peace and was also in correspondence with the Pope calling for reforms. In 1376, she was sent to Avignon as ambassador of the Republic of Florence to make peace and convince the Pope to return to Rome. She didn’t succeed but didn’t give up hope and continued to walk every day to St Peter’s Basilica to pray for the Pope’s return, from her Roman home that was close to the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. According to legend, she had impressed the Pope so much that in about six months after her visit the papacy returned to Rome.

Over the years, Saint Catherine ate less and less claiming that she was unable to. Because of the fasting she died after a stroke at the age of 33. Most of her remains lie in a sarcophagus beneath the high altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the church that now has the sculpture of an elephant carrying an obelisk standing in front of it. Her head was taken to Siena and is kept inside a bust in the Basilica of San Domenico.

Although I prefer the life of regular mortals, with the limited knowledge of a Lutheran and despite everything told in the above paragraph, Saint Catherine of Siena remains my favourite saint. 

Photos of stained-glass windows and the two photos below: Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

Basilica of San Domenico in Siena.