Before going any further, how great is Maria’s name? I bet you wonder if Maria Nation is related to Remy Nation, one of the buckets on this blog that I never use… Anyway, we had heard about Maria long before we met her. That she is a successful screen writer was intimidating and intriguing enough, but her farm! Everyone raved about its magic, everyone swooned over Maria and her partner Roberto’s dinner parties. When we finally met her, she did not disappoint. So, I mustered up the nerve and asked if she’d share her magic with us. And, like the legend herself, her answers are as entertaining, witty and thoughtful as she is.
Any interesting backstory about your house? I bought the house from Wanda Horowitz, Vladimir’s widow and Arturo Toscanini’s daughter. I never met her but quickly learned she was a cat lady. There were cat curtains and cat rugs and cat doors everywhere. I still have one of her cat sculptures in honor of her. The first spring, when the snow melted, I saw in the distance an odd granite slab in the middle of an intentionally planted copse of lilacs, like a memorial. “Headstone!” I thought and took off for a closer look, anticipating, in my feverish optimism, that it would say “beloved Vladimir” or something (discounting for the moment the illegality of burying your husband in your back yard, especially if he was Vladimir Horowitz). When I reached it, indeed, it was a gravestone. “Daisy” it said. One of her cats. That was 20 years ago.
Favorite paint color I’m a disaster with paint colors. I did, however, after an agonizing search and crowd sourcing opinions on facebook, finally pick a color for my front door. I didn’t want a polite New England color like red or green. I wanted something “English and quirky.” Something that said: “impolite Hollywood screenwriter lives here.” In the end I picked Ben Moore’s Wild Blueberry.
Seasoning/herb of choice Salt (with apologies to any high blood pressure friends). Rosemary, depending on the dish. Pomegranate seeds, now that I’m in love with Ottolenghi.
Secret ingredient to a dish If I am making something that is proudly garlicky, I will bump up the garlic heat with a secret large pinch of dried chili flakes. It helps to show off the garlic.
What cooking ingredient do you splurge on? Cognac. Even I have to close my eyes when I pour expensive Cognac onto a dish that needs to be flambéed. I don’t mean to splurge, but… Who has “cooking Cognac”???
What appliance in your kitchen are you most proud of? Hands down, my double oven Viking stove, with the grill and the zillion burners. I had a good writing year and bought it. I’ll never be able to afford it again. I still can’t believe I own it.
Napkin brand No brand but I do look for oversized heavy pure linen. From Ebay. Cheap enough so I won’t worry when people actually use them.
Knives brand I splurged once on a custom-made John Manikowski knife [below]. The blade is great steel and for the handle I chose one of his last pieces of original 30’s Bakelite in a pale green. There is cream bone and layers of extraordinary details. It is a piece of art. But, to tell the truth, my go-to knife is a really long old-fashioned carbon steel knife I got for 10 bucks on Ebay. There is just something about its rigidity and ability to hold an edge. I use them both.
Dinnerware brand Fishes Eddy, oversized white plates or the huge flat bowls if I do a pasta. They weigh a ton. A thousand dinner parties later not one has broken. Did I mention they weigh a ton?
Pasta type First choice is homemade. Second choice is any egg pasta because I love the bounce that egg pasta has. In a pinch or if the recipe needs a tougher pasta I use semolina pasta with more bite.
Pantry must have Fresh spices and herbs. After a year they are just dust. New Years Day is a good time to toss out the entire spice cabinet – otherwise four or five years can go by in a flash and you end up “seasoning” with sawdust.
Favorite room in the house Maybe the screened dining porch off the dining room. You’re slightly elevated there and can see the gardens, the Housatonic down the hill, and when we have dinners on the porch you can watch the horses and donkeys meander around in the paddock down below.
Rainy weather activity Get up and clean the horses and donkeys and feed and water them. Same as every day except with mud all over you. Fun. The rest of the day revolves around toweling off the wet dogs as they come in and go out. I keep telling myself the garden loves the rain or I would go out of my mind.
What you love to do most when you’re up at the house and its region? We’re here full time. What do I love to do most? Garden. Ride. Play with the dogs. Cook for friends. Sit and look at the views and count my blessings. At sunset, roam the garden with a cocktail. We are pretty housebound. We are ridiculously lucky to have this place.
Favorite season, and why? Summer!!! Because it is non-stop gorgeous. The days are long. The morning light is extraordinary. Jacob’s Pillow happens. Tanglewood is on. Friends drop by unannounced and – voila! – spontaneous party! The gardens are in good shape then. The horses’ summer coats gleam. Spontaneous lunches can go on for hours. We sleep outdoors in the “yurt” every night. We shower outdoors all summer. It is heaven here.
Dream house? I must say my friend Anne Fredericks’ house fits the bill. She designed every aspect. It is the most beautiful house I’ve ever strolled through. But if you need a reference most people know, the Grand Budapest Hotel.
Dream designer? My friend Ritch Holben is right up there. He is confident but modest. He is original and creative and never forgets a home sits AMID a landscape and that relationship is sacred.
Cherished piece of artwork, and backstory behind it? Hard to say because I have a lot of it. There is one oil; it’s old, a large portrait of a woman from the Thirties. It was the first painting I bought, even though I had no money to buy it. I bought it decades ago in New York and she has been in every one of my homes since. I call her my “stern aunt” because she is a bit no-nonsense and her eyes seem to follow you wherever you are in the room. I think she is trying to tell me to “Do better. Be better.” She is very unyielding. When I got her she seemed old and mature. Now I realize I am older than she is. I hope I have not disappointed her.
Quick-fix meal? I make huge restaurant-sized vats of chicken broth and freeze quarts of it. With that, I’m 20 minutes away from any number of amazing dishes. If I have lemongrass I’ll throw it into the broth with garlic and Thai chilies from our garden and let it steep while I go pick Pak Choi from the hoop house. Add some tofu and Asian noodles, a squeeze of fresh lime at the end and you have the most amazing meal in minutes!
What’s the best hostess touch you do or have experienced? Or stolen? The best hostess touch is to have fun. Period. To make your guests feel totally at home and comfortable. To let them know they are cherished – and they are. I do lots of courses because I want the night to last longer. I want friends to linger. I really love my friends and meeting new people. These are not “grab and go” dinner parties.
What’s was your worst dinner party debacle? Perhaps it was Roberto’s birthday party one year. 20 or so of us were having a great July lunch outdoors at a long table set with flowers and cloths and under big umbrellas. Suddenly black clouds blew in. We kept debating if it was REALLY a storm or would it blow over… Should we stay under the umbrellas or make a dash for inside? We stayed in the debate too long. Skies opened; everything was drenched: us, the food, the dogs, everything. We grabbed the water-sloshed plates and made a bee-line into the house where we were now all soaked, and humid and the food was pretty ruined. … So we started laughing and then dancing right there around the dining room table. Humid, soaked and completely happy. I think with good friends there are no debacles.
One thing you can’t get right in your house or decor? Gosh, I would say “everything.” The rooms are funny-shaped and hard to organize. It’s too small for all the people and dogs inside sometimes. It is what it is. I love it anyway.
Bed linens brand? I have some killer linen sheets from the Italian company Rivolta Carmignani. They are real Italian hotel linens and I spent over a year finding a way to get them because they are only sold to the trade. And I have a couple of sets of Rough Linen sheets. Tricia Rose sells them. She is as much of a bedding nut as I am. I air dry them all outdoors. I am really nuts about good sheets.
Favorite home store? Seeds, in Great Barrington because the wonderful and talented Robin Ban owns it and she stocks it with great things. And Pergola Home in New Preston because my old friends David Whitman and Peter Stiglin have curated a masterpiece of a store. Alas, my friend Dabney McAvoy’s store is no longer here in GB or that would be on the list too. She’s so talented!
Favorite furniture designer? Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. (A girl can dream, right?)
Towel brand? I never even considered towel brands. As long as they are fluffy, large – and white.
Favorite podcast to listen to on drive up or down? Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History! Readers, stop what you are doing and RUN to find his podcast series. Seriously. He’s the best!
How do you spend your first 15 minutes in the morning? Last 15 minutes? In summer we take our mug of coffee to a bench we added to a new garden. It overlooks the property, the horses grazing in their turn out, the river beyond. We watch the dogs romp. We count our blessings. In winter, we throw on heavy muck boots and go feed the horses. And pray for an early spring. Last 15 minutes of the day? I read in bed. A dog at my feet. Maybe two.
Got a favorite recipe you’d like to share? More people have asked for this recipe, so here it is. It’s so easy it’s embarrassing. We make it every summer to honor our garlic harvest.
SOPA DE AJO BLANCO (Garlic Soup)
- 4 OZ. blanched almonds
- 3-4 slices stale baguette w/out the crusts (about 4 cups, loosely)
- 3 large cloves good, fresh garlic
- 4 cups water, approximately
- 5 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 Tablespoons Spanish sherry vinegar
- 16 – 20 seedless green grapes, cut in half
- lots of salt to taste
Let the bread soak in water. (I just use the 4 cup measuring cup, fill it with water and push the bread down into it)
In a Cuisinart throw in the peeled garlic and almonds and whirl until they are a paste. Add the oil, vinegar and salt and whirl again until mixed.
Throw in the soaked bread along with the soaking water. Whirl it up. It will be a thick paste. Add enough cold water to make a soup the consistency of cream.
Cool the soup in the fridge until ready to serve.
Pour it into bowls and toss in a few halved grapes into each bowl.
That’s it. Ridiculously easy. PS: I don’t even use blanched almonds – just the regular raw ones with skins.
(I swear, if I read this recipe I would not try it. Water, bread and garlic? Yuk! But this is the recipe more people ask for than any other, and everyone loves it. No one can tell how it’s made and that it isn’t cream-based. I hope you like it too).