Posts Tagged ‘saffron’

I had my first sip of champagne when I was a young teen at a grand wedding.  The taste was tart, tingly, unexpected. 

In her Encyclopedia of The Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights, Jessica Kerwin Jenkins writes that “a good champagne is feathery with small bubbles and complex, revealing a taste that is tart like a green apple, flowery with roses and violets, sweet like roasted pineapple, and toasty as a golden brioche.” 

At 14, I got the “tart” part right, but I was still years away from my first brioche. All I knew was that I liked, loved, champagne. Even in a plastic flute, it embodied sophistication and romance. (Again, my first champagne headache from the cheap stuff was years away.)

Kerwin’s book is a bit like a sophisticate’s version of Julie Andrews trilling “My Favorite Things.” Modeled after the exoctic encyclopedias of the 16th century, it’s a jewel box of trifles so delightful I dare you to read just one entry at a time. Two pages on “Fireworks” lead directly to “folly” and then to “frilly lingerie.” Ooo-la-a! 

Of course, it’s idiosyncratic. I always thought Cupid was cute rather than elegant. But Jenkins’ entry on “Amorini and putti” –Cupids, cherubs and baby angels — provides colorful context for the pudgy pink infants of the Renaissance, whose origins date to antiquity when winged boys delivered messages for the Greek gods.

Speaking of those mythical creatures, turn to “Nectar and ambrosia,” the sweet drink and food of the gods. Some historians, Jenkins writes, have concluded that both are actually forms of honey, either fermented or fresh. Sweet.

Chocolate, which I consider an indispensable food group, inexplicably didn’t make the book, although the expensive spice saffron receives its due, as well as a recipe for Catalan Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Toasted Almonds.    

Red lipstick. White paint. Black. Truffle. Fan. Unicorn. Love notes. Boudoir. Pentimento. Did you know that Cleopatra’s bling was faux jewels, and that rich and poor alike have enjoyed opulent glass emeralds and amethysts? Sequins go back to Venetian gold coins first issued in 1284. When the currency became obsolete, enterprising women pierced the “zecchino” coins and embroidered their clothes, “igniting the bedazzling fashion.” (Too tacky for words if carried to excess IMHO).

About the illustrations. They look like sepia clip art of old-fashioned drawings. Some sumptuous color would not be out of place. Indeed, a book that celebrates the exquisite and elegant deserves better. I also could do without the blurbs by Michael Kors, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tory Burch. Then again, Jenkins used to be an editor of W and now writes for Vogue.

But these are minor complaints — ants with alfresco. And it’s Jenkins’ book, so I forgive her a few sins of ommission — trompe l’oeil, blue and white china, old lace, valentines. But those are among my favorite things.

Besides, both Jenkins and I share a love of “far niente” in Italian, or sweet idleness, “the languorous sweetness of doing nothing at all.”

Open Book: I received my copy of Encyclopedia of the Exquisite by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins (Talese/Doubleday) as a Christmas gift from my friend Laura. (Which reminds me to add presents and thank you notes to my list of elegant delights).

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