I’m still kicking myself for loaning an out-of-print monastic cookbook to a fellow “foodie” and friend. Without thinking, I pulled the rare cookbook from my shelf and suggested that a little “light vacation reading” might help occupy time on my friend’s trans-Atlantic flight to Italy. He accepted the book with enthusiasm and thanks. Shortly after take-off, however, my dear friend discovered that the rare cookbook chockfull of hearty stew, winter soup, and peasant bread recipes, was no longer among his personal possessions.
Mortified, he mentally retraced his steps only to realize that he had mistakenly abandoned my precious cookbook in the belly of one of those cold, unforgiving, plastic grey personal effect bins on the airport conveyer belt. “I knew it was too late,” my friend said describing the incident, “when the plane climbed, my stomach sank.” Though my friend made an inadvertent misstep—I accepted all the blame. My grandmother always insisted that loaning a book was as good as giving it away. Loaned objects never come back with boomerang-certainty. Too many things can go wrong—that’s why Murphy’s Law is a law and not a theory. I should have known better. I should have listened to Grandma.
Since the airport episode my still mortified friend has given me about a dozen new “replacement” cook books. Similar to monastic cooking, most of these books contain dishes originating from a time when people grew and raised their own food—books with straightforward, simple, recipes from the European Old Country. Dishes like eggplant steak with red pepper sauce, oxtail barley soup, and savory potato pancakes.
Serving hearty and delicious dishes like these are perfect menu items when entertaining with old world ambiance. Minestrone soup, marinated beef brisket with onion gravy, and lamb stew with celery, potatoes, and carrots are some of my old world favorites. For additional Old World flair, serve any of these classics in a large ceramic baking or serving dish.
You can find over 150 recipes like these in Brother Victor Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette’s “In Celebration of the Seasons—Recipes from a Monastery Kitchen” www.monasterygreetings.com. This delightful cookbook, arranged by season, is filled with healthy and hearty French, Italian, Spanish, and Mediterranean recipes all originating from Brother Victor’s Abbey kitchen in upstate New York.
Drinking wine with meals is synonymous with old world cuisine. With water in short supply, families of that era rarely dined without wine. Most Old World families purchased wine from the regional winemaker—some made their own. So, remember to select a wine inherently tied to the region of your dish.
Rely on Mediterranean, Baroque, and Tuscan touches when decorating for your Old World party. A long wooden table surrounded by faux-painted chairs is the perfect place to begin. Center the table with a table-runner or tapestry bell pull. Nothing should look too new or sleek. Incorporate terracotta and clay tiles, Italian-style ceramic pieces, old world maps, wall sconces, stained glass, and statues.
Keep your gathering dimly lit and cozy. Place wrought iron candelabras on either end of the table. Serve your guests on hefty handcrafted, artisan plates. Select anything you might find in a stone house or countryside villa as decorative elements. Blaze a fire in the fireplace; suspend a woven tapestry from an iron rod and finial, and open cupboard doors to display your favorite ceramic and pottery pieces.
A topiary tree with an edible theme will serve as the perfect centerpiece. Use bundles of sage, dried copper beech leaves, dried hydrangea, millet, and poppy seeds. Arrange cinnamon sticks for the “trunk.” Place the topiary tree in a ceramic or terra-cotta pot. The organic nature of the topiary tree is reminiscent of Baroque elegance and Old World ambiance. A fresh cut floral centerpiece will work as well. I use roses, dark calla tulips, or richly colored dahlias to create a scene similar to a Dutch master still life. I place the flowers in an old pottery vase or galvanized silver container and arrange grapes, pears, berries, pomegranates and nuts around the base in a carefully candid manner.
Select chamber music, preferably string quartet music representative of the era to play in the background while your guests dine. Since chamber music was specifically written to be performed by a small group of instruments in a palace chamber—it sets the perfect intimate, romantic, Old World tone. My favorite chamber pieces are “The Art of Fugue,” by Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel’s “Trio Sonatas,” and any of Joseph Haydn’s “Serenades.” If your budget allows, I would highly suggest hiring a local string quartet to perform at your gathering. The mournful wheeze of a viola, hushed candlelight, and a steamy pot of hearty goodness will leave your guests with an unforgettable impression of Old World ambiance.
Formed in 1997, A Legendary Event has grown into a multi-million dollar full-service event enterprise, handling more than 2,500 events a year. Known for his Midas touch, Tony Conway, President and Owner is admired by top CEOs, celebrities and politicians because of his attention to detail and penchant for providing fresh, trend-setting and uniquely presented fare, always with the client in mind. A Legendary Event is located in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 869-8858. For more information, please visit www.alegendaryevent.com