Friday, November 16, 2012

Savory Pumpkin Tart

Ever wonder what to do with those leftover pumpkins from the fall display on the front porch that seemed like such a good idea at the time?  As long as they are still firm and fresh and haven't turned to mush (this obviously doesn't apply to the ones you carved for Halloween and hopefully threw away weeks ago!) there's no reason you can't turn them into something tasty!
One of my favorite inspirational cookbooks is Vegetables From an Italian Garden, part of the Silver Spoon series from Phaidon publishers, and one of my favorite recipes from said cookbook is for Torta di Zucca, or Savory Pumpkin Tart.  This is pumpkin in its true form, reveling in its own sweetness and paired with the most luscious of savory ingredients--what it was meant to be before it was turned into the traditional pumpkin pie of the American Thanksgiving table.
Torta di Zucca
3/4 cup dried wild mushrooms (your choice of type)
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 pumpkin (pie pumpkin or other pumpkin-type squash) weighing about 2 1/4 pounds, seeded, peeled and diced (Real pumpkin!  No canned pumpkin!)
All-purpose flour for dusting
1 clove of garlic
Butter (just enough for greasing the baking pan)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 generous cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch of freshly grated Nutmeg
14 ounces basic pie dough, thawed if frozen
3 1/2 ounces Fontina cheese, sliced
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Place the mushrooms in a bowl, pour in enough warm water to cover, and let soak while you perform the following steps.  Heat half of the olive oil in a pan over low heat.  Add the onion and saute, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until softened and translucent.  Add the pumpkin, 3-4 Tablespoons water and a pinch of salt and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, until the pumpkin has broken down into a puree (use a handheld blender if you need some help getting it nice and smooth).  Remove the pan from the heat.
Drain the mushrooms, squeeze out the excess liquid and chop.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet.  Add the garlic clove and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the oil is infused with garlic flavor.  Remove and discard the garlic clove.  Add the mushrooms, cooking over low heat and stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until soft and aromatic.  Remove pan from heat.
Grease and flour an 11 x 13 glass baking dish (in the original recipe a "cake pan").  Combine the pumpkin puree (cooled so it doesn't cook the eggs!), eggs, Parmesan, mushrooms and nutmeg in a bowl and season with pepper.
Roll out the pie dough on a lightly floured surface and line the baking dish with it, making sure that it comes up the sides.  Spoon in the pumpkin mixture, place the slices of Fontina cheese on top and bake for 40 minutes at 400 degrees F.
***Be sure to grease and flour the pan well to make the tart easy to remove when you serve it.  This is the way the original recipe was written (baked in a "cake pan" or glass baking dish), but I have also used a large tart pan (which may not require all of the pumpkin mixture) or wide, shallow pie plate and it works just as well and is easier to slice and serve.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gardens and Villas of Italy

 Almost five years in the making, I'd like to invite everyone to join me on my first garden tour abroad to see the magnificent....

Gardens and Villas of Italy
May 14-26, 2013
            Italy is home to some of the most beautiful villas and gardens in the world and what better way to see them than with seasoned travelers and gardeners as your guides?  Ron and Linda Williams of Garden Travelers have joined forces with Troy Marden, a nationally known garden expert, author and host of Nashville Public Television’s Volunteer Gardener to create the trip of a lifetime. With stops including the highlights of Rome and Florence, the world famous gardens of Villa d’Este and Isola Bella, the towns of Cortona, Assisi and Stresa, and some of Italy’s most beautiful private villas and gardens along the way, you’ll see the very best the country has to offer.  In addition to all of the beautiful sites and scenery, we will enjoy some of the finest cuisine and wine in Italy as we are treated to private meals on several of our stops.  We are so excited about this new, joint venture and we hope that you will join us on what is a trip you will surely be talking about for many years to come.
 May 14—Depart the U.S. for Rome
May 15—Arrival in Rome! Our private coach will meet us at the Rome airport and we will travel the short distance to Ostia Antica, the ancient harbor city of Rome where we will have a guided tour of the ruins, considered by many to rival those of Pompeii, followed by a group lunch.  We will then re-board our coach for a visit to the Etruscan tombs of Cerveteri, dating as far back as the 9th century B.C.  This site is off the regular tour bus route and will give us an opportunity to see some of Italy’s most ancient history firsthand.  Our final stop of the day will be our hotel in Rome, the Albergo Santa Chiara hotel.  Located just one block behind the Pantheon there is a very good small restaurant nearby where Ron and Linda eat often, as well as several other choices in the immediate area.  Lunch included.
May 16—After breakfast this morning, we will meet our guide at 9 a.m. for a tour of Ancient Rome.  This will be an excellent overview of the area around the Roman Forum and one of Rome’s most recognizable sites, the Coliseum.  Lunch will be on your own today and for those who wish to see the Vatican, we will take cabs to the Vatican Museum.  Our tour there will include both the Museum highlights and St. Peters Basilica.  For those who may have visited the Vatican on prior trips, we will make arrangements to visit the Borghese Gallery and one other site or you are welcome to spend the remainder of the day shopping and exploring on your own!  Lunch and dinner on your own in Rome.
May 17—Today we will have an early departure time of 8:30 a.m. for transfer to Cortona by private coach. Our first stop will be the magnificent Villa d’Este in Tivoli, considered by many to be the masterpiece of Italian gardens and now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  With its impressive concentration of fountains, nymphs, grottoes, plays of water, and music, it constitutes a much-copied model for European gardens in the mannerist and Baroque styles.  We will not have a guide, but Ron and Linda have visited many times and are well versed in the garden and Troy will be on hand to discuss the garden’s features and plantings for those who are interested. The fountains are especially wonderful and the view from the top of the garden could only be described as breathtaking!
 While we could linger at Villa d’Este for the better part of the day, we’ll have to be on our way shortly as we travel next to Castello Ruspoli where we will view the garden and have lunch. It is our hope that the Princess Claudia Ruspoli will be in residence to join us. Ron and Linda have enjoyed the food and the garden here on several occasions and Ron should be encouraged to tell the story of knocking on the door for the first time!
The Tuscan countryside.
Our next stop, Villa Lante, is only 30 minutes away and is probably the best-preserved Renaissance garden in existence. The inspirational geometry of this garden must be seen to be believed.  Every aspect of the garden is perfectly proportioned and detailed and the Water Chain is one of the earliest and best preserved examples of a stepping cascade.  When our visit here has concluded we will board our private coach for transfer to the Hotel San Luca in Cortona, where we will spend the next 5 nights.  Breakfast, lunch included.
May 18—Today our travels take us to the beautiful city of Florence for a visit to Palazzo Corsini, the home of Princess Georgiana Corsini, where a very special craftsman fair will be taking place which we will have the opportunity to enjoy. The remainder of our day will be spent in Florence and for those of you visiting for the first time, a special guided walking tour of the city’s core will be available. We will have part of the afternoon to shop and explore before returning to our hotel in Cortona for the night.  Breakfast included.

Assisi, Italy

May 19—The region of Umbria hugs the eastern Tuscan border and is the only completely landlocked region of the Italian peninsula. After breakfast, we will board our coach for Umbria where we will visit the town of Assisi and its magnificent cathedral where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi are interred. No matter how many cathedrals you have seen this one is not to be missed with its Upper and Lower Churches, the latter of which holds the tomb and remains of St. Francis and several of his followers.  For lunch we will be treated to traditional Italian Barbeque in an old stable in the region and we will visit two other small towns nearby before returning to our hotel in Cortona.  Breakfast, lunch included.
Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy
May 20—Today we will depart for Villa Geggiano where we will enjoy a tour of the garden and villa, as well as be treated to lunch.  Two brothers run the winery and villa and one of the two (both are wonderful!) will serve as our guide. “Around the enchanting hills of Chianti Classico, world famous for their wines, their natural beauty and their millenary history, just six kilometers North-East of Siena, is the centuries-old Villa di Geggiano, home since 1527 of the Bianchi Bandinelli family and its winery.  The family continues to manage the Villa and its precious surrounding vineyards with the passion of those who thoroughly appreciate the beauty and richness of this land.  The Villa and garden, originally built in the 14th century and completely renovated around 1780, have been declared a National Heritage site and, with their original decorations and furnishings, form an exceptional historical site where visitors are brought back to the atmosphere of an elegant eighteenth century holiday mansion.”
This is one of the most special stops on our itinerary and is one of Ron and Linda’s favorite private sites in all of Italy.  We are certain you will leave feeling the same way.  The site, the food, the wine and the hospitality of the owners are second to none. When we have finished, we will board our coach for a drive through the Tuscan countryside to the town of San Gimignano, famous for its dozen or so towers which form an unforgettable skyline. It also has a wonderfully quaint town square, good shopping and some of the best gelato you will have on the trip! At the end of the day, we will return to our hotel in Cortona for the evening. Breakfast, lunch included.
May 21—Our stops today will include both Pienza and Siena.  In Pienza we will visit the Palazzo Piccolomini.  Much-inspired by the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, this is Rossellino’s masterpiece.  Inside there is the armory, the library with early printed books and the Papal chamber with a Baroque bed.  If the three sides facing the town are similar and in harmony with pilasters and entablatures, not so the fourth, with its three-story loggia and hanging garden looking onto the sweeping landscape of the Orcia Valley. The square around the Palazzo is Renaissance in style and very interesting.  Pienza also has wonderful food and cheese stores.  We will have lunch at Montereggioni, an intact walled city.  After lunch, we will make our way to Siena where we will meet our guide and tour the inner core of the city before returning to our Cortona hotel.  Breakfast, lunch included.
Sunrise in Tuscany
May 22—Today we make the final transfer of our trip, from Cortona to the beautiful town of Stresa on the shores of Lake Maggiore.  We will leave Cortona at 9 a.m. and visit the Corsini Winery for a tour of the garden, the old winery and the villa. This winery has been in existence for at least 500 years.  At one point, the villa had been uninhabited for 50 years, but the current residents have done a marvelous job of restoration.  We will have lunch here, which will include the Corsini wine.  Ron and Linda have been here on several occasions and feel sure that everyone will find this stop a real treat.  Our final destination of the day will be Stresa and the Grand Hotel Bristol, where we will spend the remaining days of our trip. Breakfast, lunch and dinner included.
May 23—This morning we depart our hotel at 9 a.m. for Villa Cicogna Mozzoni for a private tour of the Villa, the garden and a private lunch in the Villa. This will be another amazing visit to a private home and garden with the owner as our host.  Again, Ron and Linda have been here several times and it is always a thrill and Troy will be available, as he will be throughout the trip, to answer questions or lead discussions relating to gardens, garden design and the wide variety of plants you will encounter along the way.  Lunch today will be our final group meal and we should return to Stresa by 3:30 or 4:00.  Breakfast, lunch included.
May 24—The final two days of our trip will be for you to explore Lake Maggiore and Stresa on your own and there is much to do!  Stresa is a truly wonderful and relaxing small town that you are sure to fall in love with. Today we have arranged for private transport to Isola Bella—the “Beautiful Island”—a treat that should not be missed.  It is magical, to say the least, with its magnificent Villa and a garden that will leave you at a loss for words.  Of all of the gardens that Troy has visited in Italy, this is one of his favorites and he will station himself around the garden to talk about the garden’s design and its excellent collection of plants.
After our visit to Isola Bella you will be on your own to return to the mainland or to visit one of the other nearby islands.  Isola Pescatori is the smallest, but has a few interesting shops and a couple of good restaurants that serve fresh fish caught directly from the lake.  Our recommendation would be to visit Isola Madre, with its much different but equally stunning garden and exceptional collection of plants, as well as its own beautiful Villa. Breakfast included.
May 25—Our final day in Stresa is entirely yours, with free time to rest, relax and enjoy your surroundings.  There are several things to do in the area and we are happy to make recommendations. Breakfast included.
May 26—Return flight home, from Milan Malpensa Airport.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Please note that departure times from hotels each morning may vary based on that day’s tours.  It is important to listen to all bus announcements upon arrival to various hotels and sites and at the end of each day for the following day’s departure time.  Also, TRAVEL PLANS ARE MADE SEVERAL MONTHS IN ADVANCE AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO CHANGE DUE TO UNFORESEEN CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND OUR CONTROL.
The price of this trip is $3395.00 for the ground package based on double occupancy.  Included:  Hotels, breakfast each day, private coach travel in Italy per itinerary, admissions to sites visited as a group, guide services where noted, 9 meals, taxes.  The tip for the coach driver is not included.  The cost is based on a minimum of 20 persons and an exchange rate of 1.25 and could be subject to modification should either of these factors change unexpectedly.  We try very hard not to do this and will notify the group immediately should it become necessary.
$200.00 per person deposit due by Dec. 1 (Deposits made prior to Dec. 1, 2012 will be fully refundable until Dec. 1, 2012).  A payment of $1000.00 is due by Feb. 1, 2013.  The final payment is due by April 1, 2013.  Because of the small size of our groups, prices and accommodations both at hotels and private gardens/estates are based on group size.  For this reason, it is not possible for us to refund the cost of the trip, except for the deposit as noted above, once you have committed to join us. For that reason, we suggest that all travelers purchase Travel Insurance, which is addressed below.
Single Supplement: While most people will travel as couples or pairs, with spouses or friends, a single supplement will be available should you wish to travel individually.  Please feel free to inquire by emailing me at .
We have not included airfare in the price of this trip, as many people today prefer to book their own air travel using airline miles, credit card points or other methods.  We will give a meeting time at the Rome airport on May 15 and hope that everyone will make every effort to be there on time so that we can depart by private coach for our first destination.  Linda will be available to help book international flights should you need assistance.
Travel Insurance:
We highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance so that you are covered in the event that unforeseen circumstances would prevent you from traveling. We would be happy to offer some suggestions and encourage you to buy the insurance as you place your deposit.
Current passports are required for travel to nearly all destinations outside of the U.S. and Italy is no exception.  Please be sure that your passport is current or that you apply for your passport (if you don’t have one) at least 90 days prior to departure, and even further ahead of time is preferable and highly encouraged.  Better to be safe than sorry!
For more information:

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On The Ground and In The Air

Good Morning All!

It has been a long time since we last talked and first and foremost I just wanted to let everyone know that all is well!  There have been a number of very good things happening that have kept me away from the blog for a few months, but my schedule is about to loosen up a bit and I have a lot of great things to tell you.  I'll get to those in a future installment, but today, I want to tell you that after several years of trying I have found who I think are the perfect folks to partner with in the Garden Travel & Tour business that I have wanted to launch for so long.
I met Ron & Linda Williams at the American Hosta Society National Convention when it was held here in Nashville back in June and, as luck would have it, they own a garden tour business!  We have partnered to create a tour to Italy from May 14-26, 2013 and I hope that some of you might be interested in joining us!  Below are a few photos from a personal trip to Italy a couple of years ago and a sneak peek at just a bit of the Italian countryside we'll see on the trip.

 The sunrises in Tuscany can be spectacular and the food is second-to-none.
Assisi, in Umbria, is the birthplace of St. Francis and one of the stops we will make on this tour.

The Tuscan countryside is full of charming hill towns and our trip will include visits to Cortona, Siena, and others.

You can't go to Italy and not enjoy the amazing food and wine.  One of our stops will be a private tour of one of the finest villas and vineyards in Chianti, where we will be hosted by the owners with lunch at the villa as a special treat.
Other highlights include a brief tour of Rome at the beginning of the trip, 5 nights in Tuscany and the grand finale will be in the quiet and relaxing town of Stresa on the stunning shores of Lake Maggiore.
Gardens included will be those of the world famous Villa d'Este at Tivoli, Isola Bella (an island garden and villa on Lake Maggiore), the private villa and garden of Princess Claudia Ruspoli who we hope will be in residence and join us for lunch, a special artisan's craft fair at Palazzo Corsini in Florence and much more along the way.
For a full itinerary, pricing and other information, please email me at  These tours are designed for small groups and we will close the trip at 20 people.  This is how we are able to visit many of the private, one-of-a-kind destinations included on this trip, so if you are interested, please don't delay in contacting me as we expect the trip to fill fairly quickly.  I hope you'll be able to join us!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Antiques & Garden Show 2012

I swore I wasn't going to do it.  A couple of years ago, after 17 years of involvement, I had "retired".  This year, I was simply going to be in attendance at Nashville's annual Antiques & Garden Show.  I would walk the floor, peruse the items, chat with old friends and maybe have a Bloody Mary or two.  Then the phone call came.  Cheekwood, our botanical garden where I started my Nashville career 19 years ago, needed an assist.  I've never been able to say no to Cheekwood and to make matters worse, it was one of my best friends who made the call.  How could I possibly say 'No'?

And so I found myself planted firmly in the middle not just of creating a garden, but creating THE garden that sits right at the main entrance to the show--the very first thing people see when they come in the door.  It was time to pull out all the stops!  I had done this garden one time before, but this year was different.  For the first time in the 20-plus-year history of the show, Cheekwood was going to be front and center.  They had to look good, and so did I.  So it was that the Cheekwood garden staff and I set to work with my talented designer friend Phillipe Chadwick (a talented designer in his own right and the gardener in charge of Cheekwood's Color Garden, among other things) and I at the helm, creating the garden of Cheekwood's dreams.  We hoped. 

There were times when it was an uphill climb, but we made it.  The first picture below is what the garden looked like at about noon on Monday and the rest are what it looked like at about the same time on Thursday, just a few hours before the show opened for the annual Patrons and Preview Parties.
Construction was well underway by noon on Monday, but the floower was still plywood, the reflecting pool still needed its liner and our "tree trunks" still needed to have their bark attached.
The same view of the garden at noon on Thursday!
Our amazing "grass people" created by Parisian artist Mathilde Roussel just for our garden at the Antiques & Garden Show.
Our "tree trunks" after they were full of flowers.  These were created from cardboard sonotubes and cedar slabs with the bark still attached.
The theme of this year's show was "Collective Color" and each flower arrangement was created in a more or less monochromatic scheme to create a rainbow of color across the back of the garden.
The largest arrangement that Phillipe and I created was nearly 5 feet tall by 8 feet wide and stood atop a tree trunk that was 8 feet tall.
One of the favorite features of this year's garden were these antique gates that were donated to Cheekwood about 10 years ago.  They have been fully refurbished and will now be prominently featured in the newly-renovated Howe Garden which will open later this spring.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Winter Weather Advisory

Winter Weather Advisory.  Those are words we've only heard once or twice here in the Nashville area this winter.  In fact, our winter has been closer to a Zone 8b winter than our typical Zone 6b (or 7a if you choose to believe the new USDA Hardiness Zones Map that was just published ).  Yes, we've gotten warmer.  Imagine that.  The new Hardiness Zones Map is based on 30 years worth of data, rather than the typical 10 years, so at least we're headed in the right direction and looking at long-term weather data rather than potentially anomalous short-term trends.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus

While I have personally enjoyed not having those frigid winds whipping across the ridge and the treacherous road conditions that go along with living in a region that is notoriously unprepared to deal with winter weather, the garden has been confused.  Not all of the plants are confused, mind you, but some that have a predisposed notion for popping up early in the season were waaaay ahead of schedule.  Narcissus pseudonarcissus the early daffodil that is naturalized all over the southeastern U.S. usually begins flowering about now--sometime between Valentine's Day and the end of February.  This year, it was in full bloom in my garden on January 20.

Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper'

Hellebores, also called Christmas or Lenten Rose depending on the species, are staples of the Southern shade garden.  Their evergreen foliage provides year round interest, but it's their flowers that are most welcome during the short, gray days of winter.  I have several and can honestly say I don't think I've ever met a hellebore I didn't love.  Some of the most impressive that I have trialed over the past three years include Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper', which began flowering the week of Thanksgiving (2011) and continues to produce new flowers even as I'm writing this, the third week of February, three months later.

Helleborus niger 'Double Fantasy'

Helleborus niger 'Double Fantasy' as it ages.

Helleborus niger 'Double Fantasy' is a fairly recent introduction from Japan and has pristine white flowers which, once the plant is well-established, will be fully double in form.  Younger plants will produce what are often called "anemone-flowered" blooms with a ruff of central petals like the photos above.  I also love the way the flower ages, with the outer petals often turning green while the inner petals remain white.

Helleborus x 'Winter Moonbeam'

Another outstanding performer in the garden during the past three years or so has been Helleborus x 'Winter Moonbeam'.  I love its foliage in the summer--a dark, almost black-green with creamy silver marbling in the veins.  It's right by the front door where I can appreciate it every day.  And in winter, it greets me from around New Years Day until late March with creamy white flowers that age pink and eventually to almost maroon.  They remain on the plant for several months and I remove them only when the new foliage begins to push up in mid-spring.

I also love the opportunity to visit other gardens around Nashville and wherever I may be traveling for business or pleasure.  Some recent trips to Cheekwood, our local public garden and Glen Leven, a property owned by The Land Trust for Tennessee, offered up these spectacular winter and early spring garden gems.

Edgeworthia chrysantha--Chinese Paperbush

Chimonanthus praecox--Wintersweet (flowering at Christmas!)

Arum italicum--Italian Arum (Leaves appear in autumn and remain throughout the winter.)

And a very special little narcissus, known throughout the South as a "Sweetie" because of its intoxicating fragrance, Narcissus jonquilla (flowering about a month early).

So if, like me, you live in USDA Zone 6b or warmer, you too can enjoy many of these winter-flowering beauties.  Many are hardier than Zone 6, growing even into Zone 5 (and in the case of the Narcissus, Zone 4).  They'll just flower at the end of winter instead of throughout the winter months like they do for me.