Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kerylos –– One of the Most Beautiful Places in the World and Cato’s Cheesecake

Villa Kerylos, House & Garden, 2001

There are those who rail against the 1% and their excesses (please explain Spelling Manor to me –– 56,000 square feet of UGLY), but there is a lot to be said for old family money and an eye for art and style.  Without them, there may never have been Villa Kerylos, one of my favorite places in the world.  Reading about Greek art a few weeks ago set me to thinking about the house again after it had been too long out of my thoughts.  I love this house.

The Ephrussis were seriously 1% (their great wealth came from banking and oil) and responsible for some glorious buildings in the late 19th and early 20th century.  They are at the heart of Edmund de Waal’s  incandescent book, The Hare with Amber Eyes. The Ephrussi’s built the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, the Hotel Ephrussi in Paris and a marriage into the Rothchild family produced the very pink Villa Ephrusi de Rothchild on Côte d'Azur.  They are all spectacular but to me, none compare to the quiet elegance of Villa Kerylos.

Théodore Reinach
The man that built Villa Kerylos was not born into the Ephrussi family but married into it when he took Fanny Ephrussi Kann as his wife.  His name was Théodore Reinach. He came from a family of terribly brilliant men.

‘Polymath’ would be an appropriate descriptor for him since he was an “archeologist, a mathematician, lawyer, papyrologist, philologist, epigrapher, historian, numismatist, musicologist, professor and politician.”  After losing his first wife in 1889, he married Fanny in 1891.

Emmanuel Pontremoli
When it came time to build a home the Reinachs decided on the French Riviera as the place to do it (in the town of Beaulieu sur Mer). In 1902, they hired Emmanuel Pontremoli to build it and it was a perfect choice.  Pontremoli was an architect but also an archeologist and fellow Hellenist and that conjunction of talents is what made Kerylos such an extraordinary place (the design was loosely based on aristocratic homes on Delos –– archeological excavations of the tiny island began in 1872 and its art and architecture was much appreciated at the time).
Pontremoli created amazing murals, mosaics and furnishings for the house that are inspired and in some cases, directly copied from antique sources.  It was a complete immersion into the graceful style of ancient Greece with some sampling of the best of Rome, impeccably researched and finely crafted using the finest materials available.  Because I work closely with craftspeople in my job, I think I should mention a few of the rarely sung heroes of Kerylos. 
The striking textiles are from Ecochard Lyon:

The murals were painted by Karbowsky and Jaulmes (students of the great Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes )

 Kerylos gallery

 Kerylos gallery
 The furniture was designed by Pontremoli but built by cabinetmaker Louis-François Bettenfeld. 
The Kerylos KLISMOS –– my favorite chair in the world
The spectacular oak cabinets were based on those found at Herculaneum in 1762.

Photographs can’t do justice to the way light and the views animate the rooms during the day–– they are alive.


Reinach lived in the house until his death in 1928 but then the story takes a terrible turn.  Although he bequeathed the house to the Institut de France his son lived in the house with his wife and children till the Nazis infested France and Kerylos.  The paintings, books and construction records were lost.  Worst of all, Reinach’s son, wife and children were sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered.  It’s hard to believe something so tragic could happen in a place so full of light and grace.
I can’t recommend a visit to the house enough.  It doesn’t impress from the outside.  Once within, the views and the serenity of the interior are pure magic.  Needless to say, it is best when seen off-season when there are not many tourists.  You will feel the magic of the place more deeply in quiet.

Also, this wonderful book is out Aug 18th, 2020

It tells the story of the man who built the house - and the house being a reflection of the soul of the creator - a genius polymath who revealed, as many of us do, our inner selves with our collections of art and objects.  I loved the book and will write about it soon

What would be a fitting dish to enjoy in such a place?  I was going to cook something from Reinach’s time at the house at first –– but that seemed wrong. Kerylos needed food from the ancient world.

When I wrote about the Greeks a few months ago I used my favorite book on the food of ancient Greece and Rome, The Classical Cookbook by Sally Grainger.  I was intrigued by the ancient cheesecake that was mentioned throughout the book and appears in classical literature, Homer to Ovid.  These cakes were offerings to the gods and go far back into history. This recipe comes from antiquity, courtesy of no less than Cato the Elder around 160 BCE. Dripping with honey and perfumed with bay leaves, they are seductive with their soft centers and ever so slightly crisp exterior with the barest hint of layers.  They are amazing but more like a pastry than the cheesecake we are familiar with today –– much lighter.  I can imagine having them whilst lying on one of the Kerylos couches, gazing at the vast blue Mediterranean stretching below.  It would be heaven.

I made these with homemade ricotta from a recipe I found on Smitten Kitchen.  It is easy as could be to make.  This time I used raw milk and cream to make the ricotta and was knocked over by the result.  It’s the best ricotta I ever had and nothing like what you’re used to.  It may not be true ricotta but it is truly delicious. Ricotta is traditionally made with leftovers from cheese-making and without much fat. This ricotta is exactly the opposite, creamy instead of dry and grainy. I think the cheesecake will be best with homemade ricotta, fine with fresh ricotta if you can find it and good with the tub variety.  You will sacrifice some of the subtle texture of the cake using the tub but it will still be delicious.  Also, I really recommend a single source honey for this (aside from the possibility your honey bear is not all honey or comes from honey bees fed corn syrup or even polluted Chinese Honey) it is best with a honey with personality.  I loved Acacia honey with mine.  They are really simple to make and so worth it.

You do eat the cooked bay leaves on the bottom... they are crisp and delicious!

Sweet Cheesecake from The Classical Cookbook (based on Cato)

1 c (4 oz) AP flour
8 oz ricotta cheese (homemade or purchased –recipe follows) DO NOT USE LOW FAT
1 egg, beaten
¼ t salt
olive oil to oil pan
bay leaves (they have them fresh at Whole Foods -  dry leaves could work too but I haven’t tried them)
½ c (4 oz) honey, warmed

Heat the oven, a  baking dish and fitted cover or dutch oven to 425º for 20 minutes (the book recommends an upturned clay pot for the top but an oven-proof lid will work). **I originally used a metal pie plate and an unglazed tile placed directly on the dough and frankly liked the texture better... it was flakey and crisp.  In a dutch oven, the texture is like a flakey biscuit... so your choice).

Sift flour into a bowl.  Beat the cheese until it is soft and stir the egg into it.  Add the flour and salt.

Divide the dough into 4 or 6 balls (I made 6) although the original says it is one large cake.  Make them into buns. 

Remove the baking pan and cover from the oven.  Coat the dish with a little olive oil (put a little oil on the unglazed tile if that is the route you are taking).

Lay down 1 or 2 bay leaves for each bun, then place the buns on the leaves.

Place the top over the buns and put in the oven.

Cook for 20- 30 minutes, turning the pan halfway and checking on doneness.  They should be a gorgeous golden brown.

Remove from the oven and remove top.  Put on a warm platter and warmed honey all over them.  Serve warm.

PS.  I originally put an oiled tile directly on the dough. Then food historian Ken Albala told me the translation of brick was a domed clay dish (called a testum), so I had the technique wrong. If you use a covered dish the result will be a bit puffier like the photo below –– I liked the texture of the weighted version better but it is not authentic).

this is a picture of the cakes cooked in a covered dish

Original recipe from 160 BCE:

Libum to be made as follows: 2 lb cheese well crushed in a mortar, when it is well crushed, add in 1 lb bread-wheat flour or, if you want it to be lighter, just half a pound, to be mixed well with the cheese.  Add one egg and mix all together well.   Make a loaf of this, with leaves under it, and cook slowly in a hot fire under a brick. 

CATO the Elder De Agri Cultura

picture of cakes cooked directly under a tile

Ricotta Cheese from Smitten Kitchen (via Tasting Table)

3 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream 
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan. Attach a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Heat the milk to 190°F, stirring it occasionally to keep it from scorching on the bottom. Turn off the heat [Updated] Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, then stir it once or twice, gently and slowly. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth (I was out of cheesecloth and used a paper towel!) and place it over a large bowl (to catch the whey). Pour the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds strain for at least an hour. At an hour, you’ll have a tender, spreadable ricotta. At two hours, it will be spreadable but a bit firmer, almost like cream cheese. (It will firm as it cools, so do not judge its final texture by what you have in your cheesecloth.)

NOTE: I kept the whey and was glad I did.  I let my ricotta drain for 2 hours and that seemed perfect when I took it out but after refrigerating it, it seemed dry so I added some of the whey back into it. 

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Faith said...

Pure magic, indeed...this place is breathtaking. So sad that its history is intertwined with such tragedy.

The Sweet Cheesecake recipe sounds lovely, especially with the creamy fresh Ricotta you made! Need to try this one. :)

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I hadn't actually heard of the Ephrussis family before so this was an especially interesting read. I love making fresh ricotta, it's so quick and easy and as you say, so much better than the ones at the supermarket :)

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Oh and I keep the whey and bathe in it. It's great for the skin and makes it baby smooth :D

Marjie said...

It's a beautiful interior. I don't understand railing against the 1% when opportunities are there for all, and anyone can choose to progress as much or little as they please. Ah, a story for another day. Your cheese cakes sound really simple and good, although I'm grateful that you didn't have to put yours in a hot fire under a brick. I suspect that would have been a housing code violation.

Barbara said...

The photos of the textiles and murals are beautiful. One could spend a very long time just looking at them, let alone see them in real time. How I'd love to do that! No wonder you adore this place. But such a tragic ending to Reinach's family. (And even more frightening to read nearly every day about attacks on Jews spreading across the world.)

I've made ricotta was fabulous. And so simple, everyone should do it. Your cheesecake looks delicious...the bay leaves were a surprise addition. An uncomplicated dish, but elegant enough for the fanciest meal.

Ken Albala said...

Deana, it's not quite clear what you cooked these in. A Casserole? When Cato says under a brick, he doesn't mean a building brick, like chicken under a brick. I'm fairly certain it's sub testa - under a clay dome, which acts like a little oven. A covered casserole would give the same effect.

GORGEOUS Place BTW! ANd GReat Story.

Deana Sidney said...

Ha. SO much for reading the recipe! Brick is deceiving but the result was delicious -- will amend accordingly!

El said...

There was great quality and craftsmanship used back then. I agree on the Spelling house- it's vulgar. That said, your snacks look very tasty. Yum!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Deana:
Although we are very familiar with the very pink Villa Ephrussi, the Villa Kerylos seems to have by-passed our architectural radar completely. And, what an elegant and stylish house it looks to be. It must now be on a visiting list for us at some point in the future.

We thought the book 'Hare with the Amber Eyes' to be a terrific read.

Timothy said...

You don't eat the bay leaf do you?

Deana Sidney said...

Timothy : you do eat the bay leaf...

Unknown said...

This was a very interesting post. We visited the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in May (a place we liked a lot) and while we knew that the Villa Kerylos was just down the road so-to-speak we didn't visit.
Seeing your photos and reading your post has decided me that next time we are in that part of France we will add it to our 'must see' list!
Bye for now

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What a breathtaking place it must have been in its glory! How sad that the son and family were murdered and so many valuable items were lost. Such a tragic time.

That cheesecake from so long ago sounds wonderful, simple and elegant. Still, I can't imagine eating bay leaves :)

Sarah said...

You know me, I always look for the recipe! Love this and love those fresh bay leaves. Bay trees grow on Vancouver Island and that is the closest I have come to fresh leaves! Yum.

Diane said...

What an amazing place and masses of interesting facts.
Cheese cake, I don't think there is a cheese cake I don't like and this sounds quite different to the norm.
Take care Diane

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Beautiful photos of Kerylos! I've never been, but really want to go now!

Lovely cheesecakes as well - very pretty - and I love the difference the domed dish made in the appearance and texture of the cakes.

Another lovely post!

Anonymous said...

We've made these cakes, but using hard cheese, because of the instructions to grind it. They're savory and delicious and are best hot out of the testum. Actually I have no idea how they are other than fresh & hot because they've never lasted long enough to find out.

Unknown said...

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Frank said...

Amazing place—adding to my bucket list!