Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tea anyone?...............the creation of a Victorian Tea Party

Tea is so popular right now, even the men are drinking it. Prior to the 20th century, the drinking of tea was associated with "ladies" attending afternoon tea parties or meeting each other in tea rooms for a slice of cake and a little pleasant conversation. But it seems it is more popular now than ever and has become more or less a household staple, drunk throughout the day by some and in stead of coffee by others. So has the Victorian afternoon tea died out completely? Not according to some. I have a Victorian bed and breakfast. Although we have very modern amenities, we have retained Victorian decor and the feeling of the 1800s, when my house was built. Visitors love it. It makes them feel as though they have been taken back in time . So what has this got do with Victorian teas?

Well, it seems as though being taken back in time is not enough, some visitors want a hands on, more authentic experience. What was the food actually like? What did the dishes, and the cups and the tea service actually look like. What did it feel like to participate is such a ritualistic, elegant event? How fun would it be to have that experience? And so, after getting numerous calls asking if we do Victorian teas, we've decided to give the people what they're asking for. First thing we did was dig into the history a bit.

According to legend, tea drinking started accidentally in 2737 BC, when Chinese emperor Shen Nong was served water into which dried tea leaves had fallen. He thought it had an "interesting" flavor and eventually drinking tea spread though out his empire. It later became so well liked that it was cultivated and served during ritual tea ceremonies both in China and Japan. The art of the tea ceremony became so popular that tea houses sprang up all though out the orient.

By the late 1600s, tea drinking had made its way to Europe. And, by the 1700s, France and Holland led Europe in using tea, with England running a close third. And it was here, in England, that the European tea service format was created by Anna, the dutchess of Bedford. She would frequently invite her friends to an afternoon of conversation, serving small cakes, sandwiches, assorted sweets and, of course, tea.

Two types of tea services emerged, high tea and low tea. Low tea was served in the homes of the wealthy and consisted of gourmet tidbits, rather than a regular meal, with the emphasis on presentation and conversation. High tea was the main afternoon meal of the middle and lower classes and featured meats and vegetables, as well as sweets and tea.

Eventually tea was imported into and readily available in America around 1690. Most distribution companies were based in New York, Boston or Philadelphia. In the 1880s tea rooms began to spring up all over, in both Europe and America. Hotels like the Ritz, in Philadelphia and the Plaza, in New York became noted for their daily afternoon tea service.

So, we, at the Aleksander House, are planning on presenting Victorian Teas, in all their splender, to maybe 10-12 persons from 2-4 pm, by appointment. We will be doing this on a customized basis and are already emersed in the planning of one such event for the first week in April. In later posts, I'll let you know about the service, the food, and so on. Keep posted!

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

The secret to making delicious scones in a hurry

Don't get me wrong, I am not changing my basic attitude about making baked goods from scratch. To me, they are always better them those from a mix. When I opened my bed and breakfast, 15 years ago, I swore I would make everything from scratch. I would make only real whipped cream, hollandaise sauce, and creme fraiche. I would fry bacon in an iron skillet. I was a purest. Besides that, I honestly thought anything made from scratch was better. I was not into short cuts!

Well, that was all well and good until the first time I had ten guests for breakfast and no help. I had planned on serving Eggs Benedict, bacon, a fresh fruit cup, sour dough toast and cherry scones with lemon curd and creme fraiche. "I can do this" has always been my mantra. And I began saying it over and over, when my assistant called in sick. It took me hours to prepare everything. They wanted breakfast at 8:00 am, and so I was up and in the kitchen by 6:00 am. It still wasn't enough time! Breakfast was quite late that morning and I was totally frazzled! It didn't reach the dining room table until 9:00!

That day, I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes you just have to use short cuts: pre-cooked bacon, hollandaise made with Knorr's packets, cool whip instead of fresh whipped cream. And occassionally, you have to make those muffins out of a box. Or use a mix for pancakes, waffles and, yes, scones! So after making that decision, I went on a mad rampage looking for the best mixes I could find. And, as far as my wonderful "scratch" scones go I finally found the mix to take their place.! And it was by accident or, actually, through my good fortune. Enter: the Scone lady!
Next post: How to make fabulous scones from a mix
photo courtesy Victorian House Scones
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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tractorpull tonight!

Well, the Farm Machinery Show is in full swing and I have a full house; interesting people who own farms and come into town each year to enjoy the displays and new equipment at the fair grounds and have a good time. My guests all went to one of the local restaurants last night for dinner (will post on local restaurants later) and said the food was great. It's an Italian restaurant called Amici's and , since it changed hands a couple of years ago, they now have a terrific owner and chef, and they are top notch!

So what's on for my guests for tonight? It's one of the biggest reasons for coming to the show! The Tractor Pull! What fun! Officially introduced to the world in 1969 during the fourth National Farm Machinery Show (NFMS), the Championship Tractor Pull is now celebrating 40 years of making champions. The competition had been a vision of its originator, Billy Joe Miles, and was so popular in its first year that 15 drivers signed up to compete in the inaugural pull before it was officially established.

Truck and tractor pulling, also known as power pulling, is a competition using tractors and large trucks to pull a heavy drag along a 'track'. It's very popular in rural areas. Usually the drag offers progressively greater resistance as it is pulled. It can be a great spectacle, although the vehicle produces a great deal of noise and smoke and tends to kick up dirt. Also, the tractors pulling don't actually travel very far (a typical "full pull" is 300 feet). There are many different classes, from "factory" tractors, to custom built vehicles with multiple engines.

When farming machines were pulled by horse, farmers would boast about the strength of their horses, claiming their's could tow the largest loads. They would challenge each other to contests to prove who had the strongest horse. A barn door was removed and laid flat the ground, the horse was then hitched to it and the farmer urged the horse to drag the barn door along the ground. One by one, people jumped on the door until the horse could no longer drag it; the horse pulling the most people the greatest distance was judged the strongest. This event, was called horse pulling,. Although still carried out today with specially bred horses, in around 1929 power pull contests began utilizing motorized vehicles. By the 1950s and '60s, the tractor pull had become a popular sport. For complete history see:

Friday, February 6, 2009

And so the Saga of the Rembrandt Giveaway Continues at the Inn

In my last post I began a story told to me by one of my guests who stayed with me here at the B&B. He had been a collector of famous etchings by Rembrandt, Whistler, and other masters. Steven Block's collection was comprised of nearly 120 pieces, all etchings and lithographs, which he had started in the late'60s. Collecting is not his primary endeavor or work though, he is actually a philanthropist, a sociologist, and a community planner. The collecting, as it turns out, happened accidentally, but continued for many years. It all ended, however, when he returned to Louisville, his home town, in 2004 and made the decision to give away or partially sell every single piece in the collection!

And why would he do such a thing? For money? No, although he did get a small partial payment for some of them. For philanthropy? Well, partly, but that was not the motivating factor. For fear of having them stolen? Maybe, a little. But mostly, he was growing old and wanted to find a safe place for them, one where they would be well taken care of. And what better places than the JB Speed Art Museum and the University of Louisville?

The University of Louisville got the Rembrandt and a few other pieces, including a Picasso drawing, and The JB Speed Art Museum got the entire Whistler collection, the Grant Wood collection and the Currier and Ives pieces. To read more about the Rembrandt, go to:

As for Whistler, Steven discovered some of the artist's neglected creations in Washington DC in the late '70s. This interest in Whistler turned into the finest private collection of his lithographs in the world. It included over half the known works and most important ones (88 in all). They have been exhibited at the Speed Museum and have traveled around the world with the Smithsonian. The lithographs, done between 1878 and 1903, were eventually given with partial sale to the Speed by Mr Block in 2004. Also included was a lithograph of Whistler himself, by printer Thomas Way. The acquisition has made the Speed a major center for the study of this important American artist.

Mr Block attended the University of Louisville, majoring in sociology, before going off to Harvard grad school to study community planning. After working on a city planning project in Italy for two years, he ended up in Washington DC. He stayed in Washington 40 years designing and implementing a national, community service program by the name of Vista, now known as America CorpsVista. He returned to Louisville in 2004, when he was 70 years old, and bought a house in Old Louisville, 3 blocks from my bed and breakfast.

Monday, February 2, 2009

He gave it all away...............

One of the perks of running a B&B is the opportunity to meet so many interesting people from all over the world. I am constantly amazed by the diversity of experiences, backgrounds, talents, and skills my many and varied guests possess. This week I discovered one of the most interesting of all right in my own backyard.

He checked in a few days ago, during the severe ice and snow storms, which silently stole the power of 177,000 local residents in Louisville. He introduced himself as Steven Block and said he would be staying until his house was repaired and his power was on. The heavy ice, that engulfed nearly every tree in Louisville, had caused the demise of a large tree which fell against his house damaging it severely. He had to leave his icy home, which had no electricity or water, and move to a temporary residence. I’m happy to say he chose my bed and breakfast.

Little did I know, when Steven checked in, that he had had a major collection of etchings by Picasso, Grant Wood, Currier & Ives, and James Whistler. In addition, his collection included a rare Rembrandt etching entitled “Christ Before Pilate” (pictured here). I say he had this collection because, wonder of all wonders, he gave it all away!
(to be continued...............)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Weird Week At The Inn

Ever since the ice and snow storms hit the City of Cardinals, things have been very unsettled here at the Aleksander House. Traditionally, January is our very slowest month of the year. But because of the storms, we are getting call after call from local residents who have no power. The storms outed the power of aproximately 177,000 Louisville residents.

I am not the only bed and breakfast in Louisville. There are 14 of us, mostly in the "Old Louisville" preservation area. We all belong to the same organization, the Louisville Bed and Breakfast Association, and when we fill up with guests we always refer to each other. So the calls were from both other Innkeepers and locals.

Our check-in time is 3:00 pm or after. Check-out is 11:00 am. Our rates are based partly on how long people are here. The confusing part of all this is that people without power would check in and then, when their power came back on, they would leave, sometimes at odd times. People were coming and going according to their power, or the lack thereof. It was hard to determine how much to charge them. In addition, feeling guilty that I had power and they didn't, I struggled with how much to charge them. I ended up giving everyone a discount. The longer the power was out, the deeper the discount.

The phone was ringing off the hook with calls from freezing people, who had tried to tough it out in their icey homes in front of tiny fires in fireplaces or wood-burning stoves. They were desperate to have a little relief, a shower, warm hands & feet, and a home cooked meal.

My heart went out to my local guests, reluctant to leave their homes, their pets and their plants...... throwing a few night clothes and sundries in plastics bags (too cold to go search for the suitcase in the storeroom) and searching for warmth and comfort.

We did our utmost to make them feel at home; trying to turn our Inn into a safehaven for new friends. One thing they were all grateful for were our huge gourmet breakfasts. Today, we served a delicious Spinach-Mushroom Quiche, homemade Lemon Blueberry muffins, fresh fruit and sausage. (see "recipes" on side bar). They were delighted.