The Best of Class

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275. Even Better Mexican Chocolate
Some things really do get better.  Not too long ago we extolled the virtues of Ibarra chocolate, a widely available, commercially manufactured Mexican chocolate.  Now, we are delighted to report that we are one step closer to being able to buy true Mexican chocolate, just as it is made in Oaxaca.  Susanna Trilling, author of Seasons of My Heart and owner of a cooking school outside Oaxaca, makes chocolate using traditional Mayan methods.  She buys her own cacao beans, roasts them, and grinds them until they are the texture of coarse sand.  She adds sugar and grinds in sticks of soft Ceylon cinnamon favored by Mexican cooks, and forms the mixture into rough handmade bars.  The result is a grainy, bittersweet chocolate bar, redolent of cinnamon, as delicious eaten out of hand as it is frothed in hot milk.  Either way, it will bring a touch of sweetness to a bitter season.  Contact:  Zingerman’s, 422 Detroit Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. Telephone:  888-636-8162.  Fax: 734-477-6988.  (Not available on website,  Also see our thoughts on the formerly "Best Mexican Chocolate."

Note to me:  Link back to our own Best of Class for Ibarra chocolate- Best Mexican Chocolate?

274. Most Civilized Letter on Eating Well
Let us stress this is not about cooking or recipes (oh, you will find some of them there) or trendy restaurants or where to find ingredients and cooking utensils or how to be a compulsive foodie.  This newsletter gives you enough context about what lies behind good food to help the reader experience nuances and  a finer contentment from a well-wrought meal.  A goodly number of chefs are readers, and it must help them immensely, since the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and the other food vocational schools don’t teach the culture of food.  Ed Behr, the publisher-editor from Peacham, Vermont, got started on The Art of Eating in 1986 after knocking about a bit, as a carpenter, then a builder, then an all-hands helper on a trade magazine.  But writing about something was probably in his blood:  his father wrote for the Wall Street Journal, seemingly forever, and, as Mr. Behr says, when there are 4 or 5 newspapers in the house to read every day, it rubs off on you and stays with you as you sink into adulthood.  Now The Art of Eating is up to 9,000 subscribers, and it manages to consume all his waking time and most of his dreams.  In fact, in his few moments of idleness, he pines for the days when he can read about something outside his chosen field.    

When you are immersed in food, the thought of it often becomes a bit tiring.  We know a chief dietitian who was responsible for putting out 15,000 meals a day:  up to her eyeballs in food, she only retained a taste for lobster, crab, and rich chocolate ice cream the likes of which we can no longer buy today.  Naturally we asked Mr. Behr what stands out in his memories and in his newsletters.  Fairly early on—1995 in Apulia—he had endless wonderful fish courses at a restaurant—it might have been Jesu Christo—that was a Proustian hour that has never been repeated. 

And, he is fond,  we gather, of a treatment he did of Paris in Winter 2002.  No wonder he is such a fan of Richard Olney. 

We ourselves just reviewed his Winter 1992 issue, “Honey Makers,” which was about bees, honey, beekeeping, and all that.  We were taken to learn that “The Catholic church used to require that its candles be made of beeswax, because it was believed that bees were chaste.”  “In the classical world, the honey from Mount Hymettus in Greece was more than once mentioned as being the best.”  Today, of course, the mountain is polluted, and the beekeepers have had to move on.   To learn a little more about Behr and the Art of Eating, go to

273. Best Small Estate Indian Black Peppercorns
Earlier this winter at Dean & DeLuca, we spied a display of small cream-colored cotton  bags imprinted with a red label:  Parameswaran’s Special Wynad Pepper.  Curious about its provenance, we purchased a 200-gram bag.  Back in the kitchen, we opened an inner vacuum sealed packet, and were nearly bowled over by a sudden burst of aroma which  conveyed the essence of black pepper:  fresh and hot with dark mysterious undertones. The very large, very black peppercorns were rich, fruity and intensely pungent, with a lip-searing heat that lingered awhile.  They tasted of the sun, as if they had been plucked and dried yesterday.

This exceptional pepper is grown on a small organic family estate on the Wynad plateau in Kerala, which produces India’s  finest black pepper.  In a valley that, according to the handprinted brochure, abounds with elephants and the occasional tiger, the peppercorns  are left to ripen on the vines longer than usual.  When the green spikes are flushed with red, they are hand picked  and laid out on mats to dry in the sun until they turn black.

The result is a premium black pepper with unparalled  intensity of flavor and aroma, fit for a rajah’s palate.  It is absolutely the right pepper for making black pepper crab, one of Singapore’s most delectable dishes. Contact:  Dean & Deluca, 560 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.  Telephone:  212-226-6800.  (Not available on the website,

272. Black Pepper:  Al the Flavor Without the Burn
Recently, exploring one of our favorite spice websites,, we ran across an intriguing new product:  black pepper pericarp.  The pericarp is the outer covering of the black peppercorn.  It contains most of the piperine, or volatile oils which give pepper its irresistible aroma.  Curious, we ordered a small sample from Herbies, which is based  in Australia.  The 40-gram packet which arrived days later contained a dark brown, very finely ground pepper with a wonderfully fresh, nose-tingling aroma.   The big surprise came when we tasted it:  the flavor was full and rich, but also mild, with less heat than most black pepper.

Ian Hemphill, one of Sydney’s premier spice merchants, went in search of black pepper pericarp at the request of an international chef.  He found it on the island of Sarawak in Malaysia, where much of the world’s white pepper is produced.   (Black, white and green peppercorns all come from the same vines, but are harvested and processed differently.)  In a process known as decortication, the black outer covering of the peppercorn is mechanically removed from the central core which is then sold as decorticated black pepper.  The remaining pericarp, when ground, produces a wildly fragrant “dust” with all the aroma of black pepper, but little of the burn.  Hemphill himself uses it to make pepper steak with “lots of flavour but not too much heat.”  We have found that a light dusting transforms ordinary grilled salmon into a feast.  Contact:  Herbie’s Spices, 743 Darling Street, Rozelle NSW 2039 Australia Telephone:  (61) 02-9555-6035.  Fax:  (62)02-9555-6037.  Website:

271. Best Place to Get Warm Under Palm Trees—Washington, D.C.
Recently, on a bitterly cold January morning, we found ourselves breathing icicles at the locked door of the Conservatory at the US Botanic Garden.  We had arrived a few minutes early, eager to see the magnificent Victorian style glass houses which re-opened to the public about a year ago after a $33.5 million renovation.  Gone, we had read, were the broken window panes and sickly plants that had plagued the 1933 buildings.  In their place were verdant gardens enclosed in elegant, architecturally revamped greenhouses.  (See The New York Times, December 13, 2002, pp. E1, E14.)

When the doors opened at 10 a.m., we entered a sunny orangerie, feeling as did the ancient Persians, that we had stumbled upon a vision of paradise.  Basking in the warmth, we admired reflecting pools with small water jets and citrus trees, heavy with oranges and lemons.  We explored the small glass houses, each devoted to a theme:  World Desert displayed cacti, succulents and a world class collection of agaves.  The Garden Primeval featured Jurassic era cycads and huge feathery tree ferns from Australia.  Plant Exploration showcased biogenetically engineered flora, such as vaccine-bearing bananas and controversial BT corn whose pollen is said to kill monarch butterflies.  

But the centerpiece was the stunning 93-foot high, glass-domed Jungle, which is filled with more varieties of  palms than one can imagine.  From the catwalk at mezzanine level, we surveyed romantic ruins nestled amongst a burgeoning tropical rain forest.  Every few minutes a fine mist drifted across our faces, as birds twittered in the background.  Fantasy is palpable here, and far more enchanting than that which prevails elsewhere in the halls of government.

270. Best Medicinal Herb and Spice Reference Books
Dr. James A. Duke has spent his entire professional life in the world of plants-- first, as curator at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, then economic botanist at the US Department of Agriculture, now explorer of the Amazonian rain forest and teacher of botanical healing.  Throughout, he has devoted himself to the study of plants as medicine.  The culmination of this lifelong passion are two worthy books so packed with scientific data that we were tempted at first to recommend them for professional use.  Indeed, dipping into the Handbook of Medicinal Herbs and the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices is like opening the door to a world where an alien language is spoken, a world of  alpha-terpineols, bornyl-acetates and the like (chemical factors which contribute to the antibacterial powers of certain herbs).

And yet there is much for the layman’s delectation.  In  his discussion of  the herb myrtle, Duke tells us that ancient Jews viewed the plant as a “symbol of divine generosity,” an emblem of peace and joy.  “Arabs say that myrtle is one of three plants taken from the garden of Eden, because of its fragrance.”  We learned that its oil is used in perfumes and that in Sardinia whole pigs are roasted over aromatic myrtle wood fires.  In other cultures, various parts of the plant are used to cure everything from boils and headache to asthma and uterine fibroid tumors.  Duke’s underlying thesis is that with a better understanding of the healing properties of herbs and spices, modern medicine could dispense with many drugs that have adverse side effects.  Medicinal Spices cites an alarming report in The Journal of the American Medical Association (May 1, 2002) that Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs) are America’s biggest killer.  Priced like vintage wine, neither book is a casual purchase, but either could be a valuable addition to the home reference shelf.  Contact:  CRC Press, 2000 N.W. Corporate Blvd., Boca Raton, Florida 33431.  Telephone:  (800) 272-7737.  Fax:  800/374-3401.  Website:

Contact:  The Conservatory of the U.S. Botanic Garden, 245 First Street SW, Washington, DC 20024.  (The main entrance is on The National Mall on Maryland Avenue SW.)  Telephone:  (202) 225-8333.  Fax: (202) 225-1561.  Website:

269. Best Pen Site
Glen Marcus maintains a wonderful site telling you the works about great pens, pen shops, pen manufacturers, etc. (see  But there’s much more.  He shares the site with his wife Karen, an artist, who displays her work here.  And as if that were not enough, there is also a travel section ( where you can get there travel notes on France and Italy to include a list of favored places where they put up for the night.

268. WGBH
Maybe it’s even the best thing in Boston.  WGBH, the public TV station in Boston, also includes in its empire 2 other TV stations and 3 radio stations which to us most fulfill the promise of TV that was promised to us by the pioneers 50 years ago.  They educate, edify, and entertain.  It seems to commission the best stuff around—from the content of Masterpiece Theater to several other programs we have mentioned elsewhere on this site, such as programs on the mind and mental development that sensibly lay out rather complicated subjects.  We cannot figure out why in this politically correct town that the content remains more educational than ideological, as contrasted with many of the other great, mainly urban, PBS stations around the country such as New York’s WNET.  As with many TV and PBS stations, the website is not very good, so you probably should not use it to get a feel for the station’s breadth and quality.  Nonetheless, WGBH has been very active on the Web, and it will eventually get its online presentations right.  In general, by the way, the media, ranging from publications to live broadcasters, don’t do a very good job on the Internet:  we suspect media people are so steeped in what they do in traditional media that they have a hard time adjusting to entirely new channels of expression such as the World Wide Web.  Who knows all the reasons why Boston public TV is the best of the best of PBS, but surely its long history and willingness to experiment has made it soar above the rest.  For instance, in 1969, it introduced video distortion as an art form:  The Paik/Abe Synthesizer was the first machine designed to distort existing video.  It was built in Boston at WGBH-TV in 1969 by Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe.  See  Perhaps its greatness has something to do with the fact that Beantown houses so many of the nation’s great educational institutions.  If so, we can regard it as part of the city’s great education industry.

Update: WGBHs Funding
It “began in the 1940s as a co-operative venture by six Boston college presidents to broadcast lecture series.”  It produces almost 1/3 of the PBS prime-time shows, and does a host of co-productions of BBC presentations.  “Remarkably … it receives more support from philanthropy (mostly in individual donations) that it does from corporations.”  “Last year WGBH raised $25 million from more than 180,000 individuals, with the average gift weighing in at $125.”  See the Financial Times, Weekend, October 21-22, 2006, p. W5.  (11/15/06)

267. Most Deceptively Simple Restaurant Menu—Craft, NY
The deceptively simple menu at Craft, Tom Colicchio’s newish 19th-Street eatery, is the perfect antidote to 25 years of bilious restaurant prose.  There are no overblown descriptions of ingredients or cooking methods.  Just words like “roasted” or “braised” and a list of the items prepared in that fashion:  Skate.  Red Snapper. Hanger Steak.  Red Cabbage.  Escarole.  And so forth.   Colicchio’s conceit is to take the finest, freshest seasonal ingredients and to cook them simply, but with superb finesse, in ways that bring their natural flavor to unexpected heights. Essentially, the diner designs his own meal, selecting courses and side dishes from nearly 5 dozen enticing possibilities.

The approach succeeds brilliantly.  At lunch on a wet afternoon, Roasted Dourade was fish at its most basic and its most sublime, the skin crisp and golden, the flesh delicate and moist, faintly redolent of lemon and thyme.  Tiny Quail were roasted to perfection, full of dark, intense flavor.  And there were wonderful vegetables: a tangle of pale green fennel bathed in lemon and olive oil; buttery roasted hen of the woods mushrooms; pale batons of sauteed salsify, the season’s most sought after vegetable. The dessert menu continues the conceit, but with more elaborate, even playful, results: we nearly inhaled our order of Doughnuts, six ethereal puffs of fried dough, each about the size of a silver dollar, three bittersweet chocolate, three dusted with cinnamon sugar, tethered to earth only by a drizzle of warm vanilla-scented chocolate sauce.  Pastry chef Karen DeMasco’s sophisticated riff on “PB & J”—grape jelly-flavored pate des fruits and chocolate-peanut butter truffles—was equally irresistible.

Architect Peter Bentel has designed a handsome space that echoes the deconstructivist menu, yet manages to be supremely warm and inviting.  Singular elements, such as an arcing wall of caramel leather, columns of burnished terracotta tiles, and banks of zingy Edison light bulbs, mysteriously work together to create a glowing space that cossets the diner.  Yes, we could almost live at Craft, especially with Chef Tom in the kitchen.  Next best might be his cookbook, Think Like a Chef, which reveals some, but not all, of Colicchio’s culinary secrets.  Contact: Craft, 43 East 19th Street, New York, NY 10003.  Telephone:  212-780-0880. Fax:  212-780-0580.  Website:

Addendum: On a recent afternoon, returning to Craft, we and a Canadian visitor had a very long lunch including squid, braised lamb, and a raft of vegetables including Jerusalem artichokes. We found a couple of beers on the menu that we had not seen before, one from Japan and one from Australia.  We were only there 2 and ½ hours.  And that’s the point of this new comment:  you’ll want to stay a while.  We don’t know how the crowds are at night, but the count was low for our Wednesday lunch, and the atmosphere was memorable for its tranquility and courtesy.  The two of us had a large commodious table fairly near the bar, with ample space around us.  Enough light penetrated in from the street, but we were not overwhelmed by dazzling display or complicated lighting fixtures.  The conversation had breadth because it was not oppressed by fireworks in the restaurant.  Craft is more than a wonderful eatery:  it is a great place.  And, oh by the way, we much agree with several of our friends who claim that you could make a meal out of the vegetables alone and skip the entrée.

266. Best Source of Fine Exotica for the Home—Soho, NY
Stepping into Sarajo on a wild and windy afternoon, we found ourselves face to face with a life-size 19th-century Mandalay Buddha.  His benign visage bore a trace of a sad smile, his gilded robes were worn,  revealing the dark wood beneath, and, between his elongated thumb and forefinger, he held the seed of wisdom.  Buddha teaches us to be without desire—but we wanted him, badly.

Other exotic treasures included a golden Burmese peacock, inset with mirrors and paste jewels, and a Syrian divan, inlaid with mother of pearl.  A decorative metal panel from India, with silhouettes of elephants, tigers, and  prancing horses illuminated by flickering tea lights, would transform any wall, inside or out.  The upstairs loft, filled with antique Indian saris and silk Turkish robes from the Ottoman courts, is a fabric lover’s  paradise.  Contact:  Sarajo, 130 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012.  Telephone:  212-966-6156.  Fax:  212-274-0462.

265. Best Sea Shells & Natural Objects—Soho, NY
Evolution, a purveyor of beetles, butterflies and other earthly delights, has long been a favorite Soho destination.  Over the years we’ve seen wonders here, from silvery meteorite fragments to human skulls inlaid with coral and turquoise.  On a recent visit we admired a rare paper nautilus, as well as an Australian trumpet shell as big as a dog.  On the wall were several hand-colored engravings taken from Albertus Seba Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (see Best of Class #253).  The cobra, lizards and gila monsters depicted therein were right at home in this quirky lair.  Contact: Evolution, 120 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012.  Telephone:  212-343-1114.   Fax:  212/343-1815.  Website:

264. Best Shells
Composite Engineering of Concord, Massachusetts makes the shells for anyone who is really serious about his or her sculling.  The Van Dusen, named after the chief shell himself, Ted Van Dusen, sells for around $7500 but ranges on up to $12,000.  So you had better be serious.   See  Or call 1-978-371-3132.  And then there are always his kayaks and canoes.

263. The Board Games of Sid Sackson
Until recently we did not know a thing about Sid Sackson.  Years ago 3M was in the game business and made some great games.  The company was, for a short while, the class act of the board game business.  We got onto it because of Acquire, one he designed, of which we have two versions.  3M made the one you want to get if you can bargain with a collector; Avalon made the cheesy version after 3M sold out, and we would not bother with it, even though it, too, is a collector’s item.  You can read about Sackson on an esoteric site, which includes, if you will poke around, a couple of articles about Sackson.  Apparently he invented 500 or so games, 50 of which were commercialized.   And he had a great collection in his own right which, unfortunately, has since been sold off.  Board games have gone into decline since the advent of video games, and so a great social experience has turned into a lonely duel with the computer.  We will be commenting more about the last hit game, Cranium, which came along at the end of the 1990s and, we read, was the first real platinum since Pictionary, which came along in the early 80s.

262. Best Italian Mystery Writer
We’re partial to Inspectors of all varieties—English (Morse or Dagliesh), Irish (McGarr), and now Sicilian (Inspector Montalbano).   The Montalbano series is by a great fellow, Andrea Camilleri, but you will have to forgive the English translation of The Shape of Water, which we have just completed.  It’s a quick read without the usual mushy philosophical overwash that runs through much Italian prose, and it’s a great laugh.  Nobody is really very guilty, but everybody, including the Inspector, is up to Italian shenanigans, which is the only way really of dealing with a hopelessly contorted political system that can easily send rather innocent people to prison and let the Mafiosi go free.  The first duty, then, of an ethical Inspector is to destroy evidence in order to protect the innocent.  Camilleri is a big hit in Europe, but he is only gradually seeping into North America.  Try also The Terra-Cotta Dog:  An Inspector Montalbano Mystery.

261. Great Tree Books
Tom Pakenham, The Earl of Longford, writes about the great ones.  His first book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, was about wonderful old Irish and English trees, and it has sold 200,000 copies, way more than any of the histories or photography books he has authored.  Now he is out with Remarkable Trees of the World, where he does the same job for the rest of the globe, not only working up the text but taking all the photographs as well.  See The New York Times, November 12, 2002, p.D3.  The fun here is that he is just a passionate tree lover, less the scientist.  In fact, he feels he is a “tree hugger.”

260. Music by the Maestro Website
According to some, Von Karajan was the great conductor of the 20th century.  In any event, his is as good a website as we have visited, so have a listen and send somebody a musical greeting.  We wish only that the creators of the site were a little more eloquent about conveying his greatness.  See

259. Best Rice Cookers, We Suppose
We are endorsing these cookers as an act of faith, because David Bouley has said that they are the ones, and he is a decent enough cook who is turning out more rice than we are lately.  He is using a Zojirushi five-cup at $127.98 at home for white rice, and a National five-cupcooker at $92.85 at the restaurant for brown rice.  See the New York Times, November 10,2002, ST 11.  Our caution to you is that the quality has as much or more to do with the quality of the rice and the proportion of rice to water, so even these cookers won’t capture Nirvana for you.  For some reason the Japanese do it have it right, and the Chinese always seem to come up short on rice.  Incidentally, the water proportions vary if you are making sushi rice as opposed to an accompaniment for your tempura.

258. A Partial List of Best Resorts
See’ve stayed at a number of the places on this list, and many get high marks, indeed.  So it is a pretty good ranking that merits some of your attention.  But it is only a starting point, since a number of resort hotels are cited here whose main claim to fame is their ability to separate you from your wallet.  But, if you vet the list, it may help when you are setting off to a state you do not know so well.  It is probably more helpful in the United States than abroad:  we notice, for instance, that it really misses the boat on hotels in London, and that the listings for Asia are not worth  perusing.

257. The Very Imperfect Perfect Stereo
We first  listened to Bang & Olufsen in a Texas designer’s office a million years ago.  We had to have one, and did soon thereafter.  The same set has been with us many years.  But soon enough the tape deck broke, and we replaced it with a solid, if uninspiring Japanese affair.  The controls have since gone a bit haywire, and we learn in general that B & O (the Danish company, not the railroad) offers no support to high end audio repair shops, so it is nigh impossible to get things in order again.  The B & O people simply want you to buy a new system.  What you get if you buy one is the world’s best visually designed sound center and—a big plus—touch- (or heat-) activated controls which means you are not fooling around with all those funny little Japanese buttons.  The Austin designer, incidentally, has long gone on to more complex, better sound systems that cost a mint, B & O long-since forgotten.  But we will keep the old machine around in some back office and ship it a distance to get a new internal circuit board, buying some new hardier equipment for everyday use.  Bang & Olufsen itself has been broken and partially repaired since, almost going down the tubes in the early 1990s.  A new merchandising strategy repaired its bottom line, even if internal design flaws, poor customer service, and a number of other annoyances persist.  We still say, “Buy one.”  It’s like owning a Buick Roadmaster wagon, a car full of flaws, but a reminder of a former powerful, seemingly invulnerable America when you rode in cars that would hold the whole family and a lot more.  B & O looks and feels like the kind of creature from which your Mozart should pour.  Look at and  These two articles will tell you why you have to have a Bang & Olufsen and why you will be frustrated by it.  To look at its current products, visit

256. Best States for Private People
California and Minnesota do the best job, so that’s where you probably should live if you care about your privacy.  They have taken some aggressive steps to protect you against the intrusive.  More importantly, you should study the long list of states doing the worst job, since there you are probably not only suffering invasions into your life but, we suspect, also the victim of poorly run governments.  The fifth and bottom rung includes Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.  All this comes to us by way of Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal (  See also “Protection of Privacy by States is Ranked,” New York Times, October 20, 2002, p. YNE 17.

255. Best Restaurant Promotion Newsletter
We eagerly look forward to Danny Meyer’s long, seasonal letter from the Union Square Café, the first in a succession of very successful eateries he has nurtured in Manhattan.  Once upon a time we quibbled a bit about his offerings, finding it best, for instance, to eat with him in the daytime, always grabbing a wicker chair in the bar, always eating the simplest fare we could find on the menu since it turned out better than his more elaborate concoctions.  Now we would like a string of his restaurants in every city in America to be assured of reasonable consistency and very civilized ownership.  Probably it was in his letter that I learned Mr. Meyer had banned cellphones, all to his great credit.  In his last issue we learned about new staff uniforms and about the convoluted process involved in restoring a mural savaged by rain damage (actually commissioning a replacement).  Well, I have actually come to like his Gramercy restaurant better, but I always look forward to the next issue of his Union Square newsletter. Union Square Café.  21 E. 16th Street.  New York, New York 10003-3104.  Telephone:  212-243-4020.

254. Tour de Force—Giverny
Only corporate chieftains do a worse job peddling their wares on the web than regional developers, civic boosters, and tourist agencies.  Most city sites are riddled with trivia and fail to convey the magic of a region or city.  Not so Giverny and Vernon.  There is so much to view and read on this site that we can see that we have several evenings of delectable pleasure ahead.  Giverny is where Monet hung out, and it is easy to see in his case why his Impressionist paintings were so beautiful.  One is transported by the delights of this area.  You will also find a section on American Impressionists, little known in the present day, some of whom came here for inspiration.  If you cannot visit Giverny, and you cannot afford to get the sunlit feel of Monet by dining off of the wondrous Monet china, then by all means take a trip there soon on the Internet at

253. Best 18th-Century Curiosity Cabinet:  Albertus Seba Cabinet of  Natural Curiosities
When this 646-page volume arrived at the post office, we could barely lug it to the car. When we returned to the office and removed it from its box, we were staggered by what we found inside:  page after page of extraordinary color plates illustrating the encyclopedic collection of Albertus Seba, a learned and wealthy Dutch apothecary (1665-1736).  Throughout, rare plants, insects and animals are depicted in minute detail; often flora and fauna are combined in strangely artistic ways.  In one illustration a pale serpent is entwined about the stalk of a spiky, burgundy-colored Katherine Blood Lily, while in another, vicious lizards and spiny crustaceans are arrayed on the same page as a delicate sunflower.  Often the plates veer into the realm of nightmare: fanged vampire bats, a flying dragon, an Indian cobra with the shape of human face in its gullet, even a seven-headed “fantasy creature.”

Like many of his scientifically minded contemporaries, Seba was in the grip of a passion for collecting rare specimens of the natural world.  The most wondrous items were displayed in elaborate “curiosity cabinets” or even rooms, a testament to the owner’s wealth and erudition.  Seba, whose reputation as a pharmacist was known across Europe, was particularly fortunate to be located in Amsterdam during the Golden Age of Dutch exploration.  Whenever a ship limped into the harbor, he would rush down to the docks where he would buy or trade medicine for oddities which the sailors brought back from the New World.  The resulting collection, as he wrote a prospective buyer, included “all sorts of exquisite pieces of the East and West Indies … 700 jars containing the rarest exotic animals and many particularly rare snakes. [Also] brought together thus are every exceptional sort of beautiful rare conch, the finest and most complete butterflies from the 4 corners of the Earth … all the plants, some familiar pieces, but unfamiliar ones too….”

In 1731, Seba commissioned and eventually published, at enormous personal expense, 449 copperplates illustrating his collection.  This book is a reproduction of a rare hand-colored copy located in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek at The Hague.  An excellent introduction provides a context for the wonders therein.  See Albertus Seba Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, Taschen, 2001.  Website:

252. Best Jumbo Book Publisher
Taschen ( in Germany is the plaything of Angelika and Benedikt Taschen.  A publishing house in Germany, with shops in Cologne and Paris that arrest the eye, it publishes big books that usually make a big statement.  Its repertoire includes film and architecture and design and art and pop culture and erotica and so on.  Surely there is a book here for every taste that can add some snap, crackle, and pop to banal people and dull surroundings.  One should get on the list for the catalog.  Like everything ever put together by graphic designers, it is a bit hard to follow and to read, but it is a great picture book to have around—and who says you have to order anything from it.

251. Barcelona’s Best Chocolate
Nearly a decade ago we spent a few glorious October days in Barcelona, exploring its many architectural wonders, from the spare Museu Picasso to Casa Mila, a fantastical apartment building designed by Gaudi.  A climb to the top of his unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, left one of us paralyzed with vertigo, grateful for a nearby elevator to terra firma.  And we ate—most memorably an entire meal of wild mushrooms from the nearby Mercat de la Boqueria, one of the world’s great food markets.  On our last day we enjoyed an extraordinarily luxurious cup of hot chocolate:  thick, dark, rich with a touch of cinnamon  We picked up a few bars of the same chocolate—Blanxart Xocolata de Canyella—on our way out.  The chocolate didn’t last a day, but we kept the handsome cream-colored wrapper with its rough red lettering and woodcut of a medieval patissier for framing.

Blanxart, it turns out, is a small artisanal chocolate company located in Sant Joan Despi, a town just outside Barcelona.  Its owners make over 100 types of chocolate and pralines, all by hand, using traditional recipes and select cocoa beans from South America and Africa, which are roasted and blended in the atelier.  To our great delight, we recently rediscovered Blanxart chocolate at Dean & DeLuca’s outpost in Charlotte.  We scooped up a handful of 7-ounce bars.  Our favorite was Chocolate Negro con Almendras, a voluptuously smooth, faintly acidic bittersweet chocolate laden with toasted almonds.  A close runner-up was Chocolate con Leche y Avellanas, the darkest, richest milk chocolate ever, strewn with plump hazelnuts.  Contact:  Dean & DeLuca, 6903 Phillips Place, Charlotte, NC.  Telephone: 704-643-6868. (Not available on Dean & DeLuca’s website.)  Also at

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