One sunless and moist summer morning a smiling guide motioned forward and we proceeded toward the main house on this fabled estate in the enchanted foothills of Montecito, California. Our mission was plain. We aimed to discover what was going on in Ganna Walska's kitchen? She reigned supreme on this dreamlike domain for forty years and we imagined she must have had some of the world's finest cooks and, like her famous gardens, extravagant amounts of the rarest ingredients conceivable? But, guess what? She never had a cook, just her house keeper, Mary, who brought her simple and healthful fare on a tray. It Seems like the Diva was honestly the queen of "eat out & order in"?
So...given this quirky realization there was nothing left to do but soak up the amazing, truly staggering, magnitude of the legacy to all that this powerhouse of a tiny woman left behind. Really a force of nature herself, Ganna made her own universe and on this morning, as fate would have it, we made a wrong turn and became helplessly lost in her world. What a gift! The perfectly maintained pathways slightly crunched as we passed by the magical gardens one by one. So paralyzed by the vision, we forgot to photograph a single glimpse of the Diva's paradise but we found them all pictured at the fabulous Lotusland website that is a must visit.
Some peeks at the gardens:
Finally captured by the security staff, we were shepherded into the original target, Ganna's kitchen. Carefully updated to be able to accommodate the preparation of many brilliant parties and fundraisers that are created to keep Lotusland going strong, there are the marvelous bones left to see. The unparalleled artistry of the cabinetry from the 20's that featured beautifully hewed hardwood surfaces and drawers upon perfectly fitted drawers that still did slide with a silky motion. Walls of handsome glass fronted cabinets to hold the stemware and dinnerware. Special coolers for ripening fruits and vegetables along with a classic cooler that would have had a giant block of ice delivered biweekly to keep the contents crispy. The visit was a reminder of the elegance that this era of design produced for the most mundane function.
Some of Ganna's kitchen's highlights:
And the Pièce de résistance? The spectacular vintage Magic Chef!
And...since we were right there, our guide offered a look at the dining room that expanded into the library and the huge step down living room. Emptied now of all Ganna's finery with excesses of furnishings from around the world, Tibetan mandalas, pots of magnificent specimen plants, pet birds et al, the place has a ghostly character. Only a giant paper doll image of Madame greets guests at the entry. In some significant way it feels like the light is gone from these spaces. Ganna is outside.
Read more about this and other famous Diva's & their jewels here:
Snooping through Madame's rooms:
The entry, library & living room...
Now we are left with only our imagination to trace Walska's life through her different influences and eras to approximate what she was serving. We found five different themes to follow. First, when at age 19 Ganna was married to a Russian Count, we find Zakusca, the sumptuous platter of appetizers that accompanied primo Russian Vodka. We think she would have approved of the selection below that serves up a fancy collection of dill pickles, pâté made from roasted eggplant or cooked pureed beans, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms even carrots. The center piece would be important selections of caviar and on the side neat piles of lovely buckwheat blinis to be delicately filled and consumed with one bite.
Madame's early influences
First in Russia then in Paris Ganna followed her passion to become an Opera singer and to go with all the fine champagne she sipped we feel sure she had her share of creative canapes that were the fashion in the day. We found one that was served from world famous Coconut Grove in the legendary Ambassador Hotel. Home of the Hollywood stars, this is a place that Madame must have experienced along with something like these tasty appetizers from Epicurious.
Ganna came to America in the twenties and through the 30's & 40's she tasted the best the country had to offer from New York to California. The cuisine was called "continental" and it featured a combination of European specialties brought over by noted Chefs and the homespun basics of American cooking that sported optimum quality beef, fowl and varied seafood.
The LA Public Library has composed a menu collection with a search engine that brings up the offerings from the finest restaurants of the time. Just enter the dates and see what Ganna and her entourage were dining on during each era.
Before the essential meat & potato entre there were interesting starter specialties like, Pasqual Celery on Ice, a kind of giant golden variety noted to be tender yet crispy, that is a grandparent of the modest mostly green and stringy offspring we commonly have today.
Another favorite would have been called "Stuffed Tomato Neptune" and presented a baked tomato with it's top cut off, seeds & pulp scooped out to hold a rich béchamel sauce coated collection of chopped shrimp, crab and lobster delicately accented with finely chopped shallots, carrots & celery. We find the California favorite, "Avocado Cocktail" alive and well at Audrey's foodie blog.
To end a Continental dining experience the favored desserts appear to be fancy form ice cream with sauce sabayon. A similar style that became all the rage, was put to jello, frosted with beautiful decorations, and pompously called Glace'.
(pretty simple but pretty good!)
Marinated Porterhouse steak
Spanish beans & iceberg lettuce salad
Garlic Roasted French Bread
The final era highlighted the many thematic
Garden Parties of the 60's & 70's.
We can just imagine the aging Diva holding court in style. She very likely could have been serving something like the Menu below all ordered in from The Biltmore or The Ranch, but more likely delivered directly from Jurgensens, the gourmet grocery store that served the carriage trade so elegantly for many years. These casual events were for friends and notables from around the world who begged for a look at her astonishing creation.
Garden Parties of the 60's & 70's
bread & butter sandwiches
Jurgensen's blue cheese ball
So at the end of our search for what Ganna was serving we discovered she never was a cook but a world class gardener! We see in Lotusland a true field of dreams fulfilled. The details of what it actually took to create this fantasy will never be known. She was reportedly hard as nails and generous beyond measure? There is not a Montecito townie of her era alive who does not have a gossipy Ganna story. The one that we liked the most was from a friend of a friend who, as a young boy, delivered the groceries from Jurgensen's to Ganna. He described her coming out personally, tiny but imposing, in flowing garments and a shock of white, white hair to make some special requests. He remembered orders for pig's feet and fresh lobster? And when Christmas rolled around there was always a fat envelope with $400. just for him.
Madame's gift is the Garden and it is not to be missed! Put a visit to this amazing place on your "Bucket List" and be assured it is one of life's great pleasures.