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Mansions and Wine and Food, Oh My! - catlinye_maker [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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Mansions and Wine and Food, Oh My! [Oct. 21st, 2011|09:09 pm]
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I got some great tips from my Uncle D about how to lower the angst next time I have to work on the rig; thanks Uncle D! Sorry for the lag between posts; we’ve both had colds and mine seems to be settling in for the long haul.

We had a few weeks to kill in New England this fall, as J had week-long training classes in the Boston suburbs in September and October. J and I have made rather a hobby of touring the Biltmore family estates (in Ashville and the Hudson Valley) and we’ve never camped in Rhode Island, so we wanted to kill two birds with one stone and visit Newport, RI, to see the Breakers and other Gilded Age ‘cottages’ and to add RI to the visited states map. And once we got a good look at the Newport Preservation Society page, we knew what we were doing for our anniversary trip, too!

The annual Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival was scheduled for the end of September. For once, the special event was on a weekend when we’d actually be able to attend! We looked over the various events of the festival, and J talked me into dipping into the vacation fund and getting the Weekend Package, featuring events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

We arrived in the area a few days early and settled into Melville Ponds Campground, a very pretty albeit expensive town park just north of Newport proper. The first two days we were there we toured some of the mansions; once again I found that an annual membership was our best value, since the dual membership included entry for two to all the mansions and a behind the scenes tour of the Elms, which was well worth it. We started with Kingscote, one of the earliest mansions, and finished our touring with the Breakers; it was really interesting to see the change in style from the early days of Newport as a wealthy resort town. Kingscote was built in 1839 and enlarged in the 1880’s. It is very beautiful; the addition complete with tiffany glass and cork ceiling is gorgeous, but the scale still feels like a ‘normal’ resort home to me. The Breakers on the other hand has that amazing over the top quality which keeps us coming back to the Biltmore estates: huge public spaces and meticulous attention to detail (and gilding, let’s not forget the gilding!)

Our first Wine and Food event was a cocktail reception Friday evening at Rosecliff. I had mentioned the festival to my Uncle B, and he was a little worried that it would be very snooty and we’d be snubbed. I made him laugh pretty hard when I described how we planned to rumble up to the valets in our converted work truck Friday night, and it happened just as we expected, though the valet didn’t look too horrified (his eyes got big, though.) As it happened, the people we interacted with were all very nice folks and very interested in wine, and we had great conversations all weekend with people ranging from a VP who told us a story about his friend dining at the White House to an unemployed mechanic who was a huge fan of Lidia Bastianich.

One of the best things about the whole festival was the chance to see the mansions of Newport as they were meant to be seen. We walked into Rosecliff that evening, and that huge space, so cavernous and empty on the tour, was alive with a band in the corner, wine stations all along both walls, hors d’oeuvres in the center and people tasting and talking and dancing all through the house. The side rooms and the terrace were set with small tables and chairs for quieter conversation and rest, just as they would have been at a ball in the Gilded Age. It didn’t look too big anymore. It looked right; it looked as it must have been in its heyday.

The same rightness was evident at Saturday’s wine tasting on the lawn at Marble House; a huge pavilion sheltered the wine stations and went all the way from the patio of the house to the Chinese pavilion at the water’s edge. The claim was that there were over 550 varieties of wine served. We didn’t taste all of them but I think we managed more than half! The first table you come to upon entering the event has rows and rows of wine glasses; you snag one and off you go. I was astounded to hear someone complain about the wine portions. J and I shared glasses; we’d get two different wines and each taste from the other’s glass, and even with both of us tasting I was dumping wine out (handy slop buckets and pitchers of water to rinse the glasses were on almost every table.) We made our way up and down the rows, and had a great time. There were some awesome wines there and we took away a handful of leaflets for later research. Many local restaurants were serving little food tastes, and we got there early enough to try the Spiced Pear’s ‘pig cheeks’ (J said “hog jowls!” and the chef said “nope, got into trouble last year serving oxtail, they’re pig cheeks,” with a huge grin and a wink.) Whatever you called them they were amazing, tender meat in a delicious gravy with cider spaetzle.

The logistics of a big wine tasting were interesting. I saw a lot of people going around with little plates with side hooks or holes for wineglasses, but when I asked, they said they’d gotten them elsewhere. I think some merchant could have done really well with those at the event, but no one had them for sale. If we do this sort of thing again I think I’ll invest in a couple; it was often awkward juggling the wine glasses and teeny plates and whatnot. There were trailers with restrooms (flush toilets, how luxe) on both ends of the huge pavilion; I’m afraid the first thing I wondered about was the tankage for such a big event (you can take the girl out of the RV, but you can’t take the RVer out of the girl...)

Our last Wine and Food event was the Sunday Brunch featuring Lidia Bastianich (famous chef of Lidia’s Italy) as the guest speaker. The chef was wonderful, and I really enjoyed her talk about her family’s transition from Yugoslavia to the US and about how cuisines adapt to local ingredients; it was moving and very interesting. The brunch featured dishes from her cookbooks (so far so good) as interpreted by what seemed to be a very whitebread hotel kitchen (erm.) So the food was.. adequate, and after the great food of the last two days it was disappointing. It seemed that most folks at the Brunch were there because they were fans of Chef Bastianich, so I imagine the event was still a success for them. It was a hoot to see two older gentlemen peeking into the banquet room as we waited outside and almost squeeing: “There she is!”

We liked the Spiced Pear and its chef at the wine tasting so much that we made reservations at the restaurant, and capped our trip to Newport with our anniversary dinner. We like to dine early for these celebratory meals, so we arrived a bit before six and were seated at a table looking over the bay, where the setting sun turned the sea foam pink as the waves rolled onto the rocks. We opted for the Chef’s tasting menu with wine flight, putting ourselves in the kitchen’s hands. Our waiter was very knowledgeable about wines and gave us a great selection with each course, and the food was fabulous. We were lucky that the Chef was in the kitchen that night (Monday, which is usually a chef’s day off) for a special party. They were no shows, bad for them, good for us; he came out to the table as he had time and we got to talk to him about the meal. It was a wonderful experience, and he gave us a card and told us to contact him when we came back, which we will surely do.