Chandeliers, Cows, and Conversation
Ariane Batterberry - September 13th, 2013
Like so many others, Food Arts founders Michael and Ariane Batterberry came to know the M.F.K. Fisher who had dove into the world, cultivated a trove of experiences, brought forth her shining prose and sharp wit, and finally settled in to hold court at Last House in Glen Ellen, California. Here, Ariane extracts a handful of memories from visits with the author to share.
At the time, in the late 1970s, that we got to know Mary Frances, she was living in a unordinary place. David Bouverie, a British architect who built the first airports in England, and was married at one point to Alice Astor, owned a ranch in the aptly named Valley of the Moon in the California Wine Country. I say “aptly named,” because everything regarding Bouverie’s estate was surreal, beginning with his concept. The property encompassed not only an imposing main house but also several small, charming villas, surrounded by fields where cows nibbled away. Bouverie had invited ladies of intellectual interest, mostly writers, to live in these various houses so that he could call on them to join him for dinner and delightful conversation. M.F.K. Fisher was one.
My memory of Mary Frances was of someone with an open face, very direct, and with the charm that comes with a delight in gossip. We had an immediate rapport, part love of the same friends, part love of the same things, and only part love of food. We were editing Food & Wine at the time, so there was no shortage of fodder for discussion and dissection.
I will never forget the lunch she served us. It consisted of “Gentleman’s Relish” on toast and sublime grilled nectarines, still warm, with a dollop of crème fraîche. Gentleman’s Relish was a brown substance that, like marmite and Major Gray’s chutney, included a multitude of flavors and spices the taste for which was brought back to England by those gentlemen who had managed to survive the Raj. Mary Frances and Michael had acquired the taste but not I.
On the next visit, we were invited to join Mary Frances for a lunch party at David Bauverie’s main house. There we enjoyed our meal under the dappled light of a huge chandelier. There was nothing odd about this except that we were dining in the garden. After lunch, we walked about the beds of roses and other flowers, the huge live oaks and faux ruins, followed everywhere by the floating sounds of new age music. Bouverie himself was a host of impeccable British savoir faire.
On our last visit, we were greeted by Mary Frances, bleary-eyed, and just slightly disheveled. She had been up all night. She explained that the walls of her house had been moving. Or so it seemed. The reason for this was that the entire herd of cows, which we felt were there for bucolic effect, had been ferociously licking her house all night. One side of my brain told me that there had to be something in the whitewash that was sorely missing in the cows’ diet. The other side told me that the surreal is never real.