Super Tuscans

In Italy, luxury has long been associated with food. When Catherine de Medici, great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, moved to France in 1633 to marry Henry II, a bevy of cooks followed in her wake, heralding the first export of Florentine cuisine that would go on to spread across the globe. Some 400 years later, many of the world’s most prized gastronomic products are still produced in Tuscany, from single-estate olive oils to sought-after wines, cheeses and treasured truffles.
Remarkably, many of these highly regarded foodstuffs are still produced by the same families who once fed Europe’s aristocracy during the Renaissance. Here, we profile three of them: two noble families, the vintners Marchesi Antinori and the olive-oil producers Marchesi Mazzei, who have been growing grapes and olives for more than 600 years; and the Brezzis, the Tuscan kings of truffles.
The Brezzi Family
Eugenio Brezzi was six years old when he found his first white truffle. Standing by his father in a pine forest collecting cones, he suddenly saw a strange dog digging something up. It was a truffle. Thrilled by the idea of a creature helping man to find such a treat, he took his father’s dog Lola into the forest the next day and found two more. And so began the world-renowned Eugenio Brezzi truffle business.
Today, the 93-year-old is as passionate about the fungi as he was as a child, explaining how the seasons bring different qualities to the truffle. “The white Alba truffle, the most valuable, ripens in autumn,” he explains. “The best ones will have been nibbled at by animals, which only go for the truffles with the strongest scent,” adds his son Valdimiro, who now runs the family business at Grosseto, near the Tuscan coast.
Like many family businesses, the company headquarters abuts the family home, and it is filled with memorabilia from the family’s other passion, travel. The walls are a patchwork of photographs recording epic trips around the world in cars, on motorbikes, horseback and on foot, and there is an enormous map criss-crossed in thick black pen showing itineraries.
It is beyond this office that the truffle rooms lie: spotless areas in which the fungi are inspected, scrubbed, stored, packaged and exported to prestigious stores throughout Italy and across the world as far as Australia and the United States. Here, three members of staff work diligently with their organic gold, some packing up whole truffles, others making white truffle purée to a recipe created by Eugenio Brezzi many years ago.
The Brezzis use no chemical aromas; all of their products are 100 percent natural. “To do things well is the best lesson in economics,” explains Valdimiro, taking a handful of perfect white truffles from a fridge: all perfectly shaped, unmarked and absolutely fresh. This little pile, he estimates, will be worth about $11,000.
Although the Brezzis are master truffle merchants and renowned throughout the world, theirs is a business for which they cannot plan. The truffle grows entirely wild, they explain, and no one can anticipate where it will grow or can plant it. Which is why the family explores forests all year round. Between December and March they will go out hunting for black truffles, also known as a Périgord truffle. Then comes the season for white spring truffles, followed by black summer truffles and finally the white Alba truffles.
A good harvest depends purely on nature’s goodwill. “The deeper in the ground the truffle is found, the better it is,” explains Valdimiro. And it is only the best specimens that will be sold. “If they’re less than perfect, we eat them ourselves.” Which is why Eugenio, Valdimiro and his son Ludovico have just enjoyed truffles with their lunch. As perks of the job go, it’s one that many of their customers would surely envy.


Like father, like son 
Valdimiro Brezzi, his 93-year-old father Eugenio
and son Ludovico and some of the truffle products
exported by the Brezzi truffle company


The Antinori Family
Who needs sons when you have three daughters – particularly ones as capable as the progeny of legendary winemaker Piero Antinori? Today, alongside their father, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia Antinori run Marchesi Antinori, one of Italy’s best-known wine labels.


Since their ancestor Rinuccio di Antinori started growing grapes at Castello di Combiate near Calenzano in 1180, the family business has expanded all over the world. Today, having passed through 26 generations, it employs almost 400 people worldwide and has vineyards comprising 1900 hectares in different regions of Italy and 540 hectares of vineyards abroad, from California’s Napa Valley to Chile, Romania and Malta.
While Albiera, the eldest of the daughters, spearheads worldwide marketing, Allegra oversees Antinori restaurants and Alessia, the youngest, runs a family farm near Rome, producing organic wines and cheeses sold in the family restaurant, La Cantinetta Antinori. The first restaurant opened in 1957 in Florence, and it now has offshoots in Zurich, Vienna and Moscow, with another due to open imminently in Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan. “The idea is to export our gastronomic lifestyle around the world, centered around our wines,” explains Allegra.
Keeping the Antinoris’ rich heritage alive is constantly on the sisters’ minds – hence their decision to move from their historic headquarters in a 16th-century palace in the heart of Florence to Il Bargino, a splendid avant-garde cellar in Chianti’s rolling hills. More like the sprawling control center of a Bond villain than a wine vault, the 540,000 sq. ft. building is seamlessly integrated within the landscape and almost totally camouflaged. The only part completely visible to the naked eye is a panoramic terrace from which visitors can admire the vineyards, planted mainly with sangiovese grapes.
As Albiera shows us round their new cellars, her handsome features every bit as classic as those of a Renaissance Madonna, she explains how the company reached a turning point in the 1970s with the creation of its flagship wine, Tignanello. A blend of sangiovese with non-traditional grapes cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, which was then aged in small French barriques, it was hailed as a Super Tuscan in America, and was a harbinger of the success to come. “It was then we realised that the quality of the grapes was paramount,” continues Albiera. “We knew we had to work during every phase in the vineyards, as well as in the cellar, with the aim of producing the best possible wines without compromising the purity of typical Chianti terrains.”
Although the family’s vineyards are among the oldest in Tuscany, it is essential, Albiera says, for the Antinoris to continue to move forward. “We are always experimenting, because there could always be something new we could improve on. That might be in the vineyards and the cellars, seeing new clones of local and international grapes, experimenting with cultivation techniques, altitudes, fermentation and barrels. And that’s what is exciting: as a family, our work is never done.”

The power of three 
Tignanello, the first of the Super Tuscan wines,
which changed the fortunes of the Antinori sisters, 
from left, Allegra, Alessia and Albiera

The Mazzei Family
Among the ten oldest family businesses in Italy is that of the Florentine Marchesi Mazzei. They have been making wine and olive oil for nearly 600 years at Castello di Fonterutoli, where they live for part of the year. Known since Roman times as Fons Rutolae, a stopover for travelers commuting between Florence and Siena, the estate came into the family in 1435. It was here that Filippo Mazzei lived during the mid-18th century before traveling to America, at the behest of Thomas Jefferson, to plant vineyards at his estate at Monticello in Virginia: the first in that part of the New World.
Today, Fonterutoli is principally run by two of the middle Mazzei brothers, Filippo and Francesco: both CEOs. Their father Lapo Mazzei is the president, while their elder brother Jacopo and niece Livia are also on the board of directors. Their mother Carla is also active, cultivating lavender on the land, producing small batches of oils and soaps that go on sale at the shop that greets visitors at the very top of the hamlet. Like the Antinori family, they have a magnificent state-of-the-art cellar designed by the CEO’s sister, Agnese Mazzei, an architect and also a member of the board.
“We employ 54 people, but this is a seasonal business so the number of our employees increases during harvest time,” says Francesco Mazzei, as he shows us around the mill where the olive oil is produced. A keen sportsman, he sometimes cycles the 20 miles to and from Florence.
The large building is surrounded by 3,500 olive trees of different varieties – frantoio, leccino, moraiolo and pendolino – from which the celebrated Castello di Fonterutoli extra virgin olive oil Chianti Classico DOP is derived. The dark oil, rich with hints of artichoke and thistle, is sealed in a squat, dark-glass bottle that bears the family’s golden crest.
There are no great secrets, the family maintains, to producing olive oil: it is a process established in ancient times that has changed little over the centuries. But there is an art to producing the very best oils. All of the Mazzei olives, for instance, are picked by hand – mostly in November – before they’ve reached maturity to retain the fruity taste typical of Fonterutoli. They are also pressed within the space of two hours in an atmosphere with a partial, or total, absence of oxygen, depending on the variety of the olives.


The family’s investment in high-tech equipment has meant that they have been able to develop the processes even further. Oil can now, for instance, be extracted even from the smallest lots of olives, so that “cru” bottles can be produced for those with more discerning palates.
The aim, Francesco explains, is to make the same products created by their ancestors, but to make them as refined as possible. “We want to keep alive historical and family values, but with new tools, to make them the very best we possibly can.”


Photographs: Magnum Photos 


Your address: The St. Regis Florence

Oil magnates 
Brothers Filippo and Francesco Mazzei
and some of the documents acquired by the family
over the course of 600 years of producing wine and olive oil

Maps of Ages - Battista Agnese

Maps of Ages

“The maps of ancient Jerusalem are all fabrication, while celestial maps are an attempt to impose the Greek myths on to the night sky,” says Jay Walker of the Walker Library of the History of the Human Imagination in Connecticut.
Today, printed maps of the ancient world have never been as prized, or as celebrated for their rarity and their beauty. The oldest date back to the early days of printing in the 15th century, when European explorers started documenting their travels, and hit an aesthetic high in the elaborately decorated works of the Dutch mapmakers of the 17th century, the so-called Dutch Golden Age.
Although prices for antique maps start at about $100, most purchases are in the low five figures. The most expensive single printed map sold to date is Abel Buell’s A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America from 1784, which fetched $2,098,500 at Christie’s, New York in 2010. Seven-figure sales such as this are becoming more and more common, with dealers pinning great hopes on increasing interest from the Far East and Southeast Asia. “I’m off to Hong Kong for the second time in two months,” says Daniel Crouch, of the eponymous map-dealing firm in London. “Five years ago I would buy in China and sell in the U.S. Now it’s the reverse.”
What are these new buyers going after? So-called “curiosity maps”, in which land takes the form of figures – monarchy or politicians, for example – are well-liked. Among the most sought-after are Ptolemaic maps, based on the shape of the world set out by Claudius Ptolemy around AD 150; the last one sold to an individual by Sotheby’s in 2006 was printed in 1477 and fetched £2.1 million (about $3.4 million). The most undervalued, Crouch believes, are whole atlases. “You can get a globally significant world atlas collection for the same price as a mediocre Impressionist painting,” he says.
Christie’s, meanwhile, has seen prices soaring for masterpieces which are rare, in fine condition and have an excellent provenance. Just two years ago at the Kenneth Nebenzahl sale in New York, the auction house sold a 1542 portolan atlas by Battista Agnese for $2,770,500 – well above the original estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000.

Abel Buell’s 1784 A New and Correct Map of the United States of America

The internet has also had a huge part to play in rising prices, creating “a transparent marketplace where map and globe values can be easily traced,” according to Julian Wilson, specialist in books and manuscripts at Christie’s. “It’s also facilitated the globalization of the market, which was dominated by Western buyers ten years ago,” he adds.
Massimo De Martini of the Altea Gallery in London points out, however, that many people still like to make their purchase in person. “The internet is like our shop window,” he says. “Part of the fun of collecting is the hunt. But people still try to feel the quality for themselves.”
Experts advise new buyers to start small, looking for anything with original hand-painted colour on it, and to collect what they love. For Daniel Crouch, this is maps that are unusual. “My favourite item is an original 1930 copy of a 16th-century book called Astronomicum Caesareum by Petrus Apianus,” he says. “It’s made with moving parts and is full of dragons.” Wilson advises looking to the skies. “Celestial maps such as Star Spread by E. Hattie Rogers (1863) will pick up soon,” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, new territories are still being charted. “NASA has produced a complete set of geological maps of the moon,” says Wilson. “One day, they, too, will be seen as a part of history.”
Where to buy antique maps
Altea Gallery, London,; Antipodean Books, Maps and Prints, New York,; Christie’s, New York,; Geographicus Rare Antique Maps, New York,; Sotheby’s, New York,; Daniel Crouch Rare Books, London,
Where to see antique maps and globes
The Map & Atlas Museum of La Jolla, San Diego,; The National Maritime Museum, London,; The British Library, London,; The Newberry Library,
Your address: The St. Regis New York


Images courtesy of Christie's and Sotheby's

A hand-stitched Star Spread,
approximately 5 feet x 8 feet, made by E. Hattie Rogers
in upstate New York in 1863

Angelica Cheung - First Editor

Angelica Cheung

How did you come to be editor of Vogue China?
Before I came to Vogue I was thinking seriously about quitting fashion journalism. I had been editor-in-chief at Marie Claire Hong Kong and Elle China, but although I studied law at university, I’d never practised it. I wanted to do something other than fashion journalism, because I thought I’d done it all. Then Condé Nast came calling. I mean, it’s Vogue. How could I say no?
Vogue China has a print and online readership of more than 1 million. Are you surprised by how successful it’s been?
Yes and no. China was tipped to be the next emerging market in fashion when we launched in 2005, and our launch issue sold out immediately, which was an encouraging sign! At the time, I said that if people are riding a horse, and you ask them what they need, they would say a very fast horse, until you show them the car. I think the time was right to show them the car.
Has the way Chinese women approach fashion changed since 2005?
Definitely. Their approach has matured at such a rapid rate. Obviously there are people who love the big brands and logos. But within the first- and second-tier cities, there is an incredibly sophisticated consumer base. These women travel extensively, they go to the shows in Paris, they buy couture. Women here like to look polished. They like beautiful handbags, lovely high heels, dresses and having their hair perfectly done. People don’t admire “casual chic” here so much. Having said that, vintage is really taking off lately. In Beijing and Shanghai, there are some very niche spenders: money is not an object, but they want to buy the right things. Some of them might buy only runway collections, for instance. Others are moving away from logo products; they feel that the newcomers from second- and third-tier cities are wearing those, so they want to show they have moved on.
Are Vogue editors friends or rivals?
There is a certain identity that is shared by being an editor-in-chief of Vogue, because it is the pinnacle of a career in fashion magazines. However, we work within very different markets, with very different readers, so at the end of the day we are very independent of each other.
The speed of change in China looks incredibly fast. Does it feel that way?
Yes. Even the architectural landscape around you changes at a rapid speed; buildings seem to come and go. However, when you live here for so long, you get used to change. People are accustomed to a very fast pace of life. Sometimes, when I go to Europe or to America, I’m like, “Oh, this is still the same as it was two years ago.”

Do you have a good work/life balance?
I used to work all the time, then a few years ago I had my daughter, Hayley. I really felt the impact of these choices that you make between work and family. It’s so important to give it your all in both aspects, and it’s something that I really try to do. Even though I travel so much, I often end up taking day trips to different continents so I don’t miss out on too much.
What are the best and worst things about living in Beijing?
Beijing is a difficult city to live in, with its infamous traffic and pollution, but it is the center of China, and that has its appeal. Parts of the old city, around the Imperial Palace, are very beautiful. It doesn’t have the cosmopolitan charm of Shanghai, but at the end of the day, the majority of the movers and shakers are here, so Vogue is, too.
How different is your daughter’s world to the one you grew up in?
I can’t even begin to tell you. My daughter has been travelling with me since she was a baby – she’s such a little jetsetter. We grew up with nothing by comparison: there was no fashion to speak of, no diverse cuisines or restaurants, nobody traveled anywhere. Now, new shopping malls are opening up everywhere, people are exposed to so much via the internet, and everybody is on their phones all the time. Hayley knows her way around an iPad, and she’s only six. That would have been unimaginable when I was growing up. I still have a picture of when I was a kid, holding Mao’s Little Red Book. My grandma was a tailor, and she made me some really tight black-and-white check trousers to wear to school. Everyone else was in a blue uniform. I loved my trousers, but when I went to school they whispered, “Bourgeoisie.” That was a very bad label. After that, I didn’t dare wear them ever again.
Would you ever consider giving up work to be a full-time mother?
I don’t think so. Much as I love my daughter, I would miss my hectic life. One benefit we have from Chairman Mao is his slogan, “Women hold up half the sky.” That era basically 
lifted women to the same status as men. As a result, women of my generation feel that we have to work. It never occurred to us to stay at home. If I told my mom I wanted to stay at home, she would think my life a total failure. Maybe it’s nice sometimes to go to the spa and have your nails done, but I don’t think that’s me, and I don’t think it’s the majority of Chinese women.

Vogue China

Is there any job you would like to do after Vogue China?
I never thought I would be in this job this long: nine years now. Friends still tease me about it, because when I joined Condé Nast, I said I would probably stay for two years 
and move on to something else once Vogue was successfully launched. But we just kept having new ideas. I always believe there is life after Vogue. Life is short. If one day I stop feeling inspired, I will move on to something else. But I don’t think I will go back to law now.
Where in America have you traveled? What do you like about the country?
I travel to America quite a lot, but I always go on business trips with packed schedules. I love New York – I like the energy, and I love how everybody there is very direct. They know what they want, and they’re not afraid to go after it.
How would you describe your personal style?
In this industry you’re forced to make choices about fashion every single day, and with a young child, and the school run in the morning, I really try to keep things simple. I love one-piece dresses, and Jason Wu always makes ones that are chic but comfortable for running around in all day. Accessories are great for making an outfit stand out, and Lanvin does such fun pieces. I have a particular weakness for coats, and I find the shapes from Marni work really well for me.
What was the inspiration behind your trademark asymmetric haircut?
It was really the notion of my hairdresser at the time. He said he had an idea for a cut and couldn’t think of anybody who could carry it off, apart from me. I said, “Go for it,” and it’s been this way ever since.
Are we going to hear more from Chinese fashion designers in the future?
We’ve always been very conscious about promoting Chinese designers since our first issue, but I must admit that, back then, it was a bit of a struggle to find anybody. Now, we have people like Masha Ma and Uma Wang who show at Paris and Milan. Huishan Zhang, who we’ve supported from the beginning, has a presentation during London Fashion Week and has just won the Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize. They’ve come so far over the past few years, and I think they’ll go even further.
Your address: The St. Regis Beijing

Angelica Cheung in her office in Beijing

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A Little Place I Know

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The recycled fashion shop in Rome by Livia Firth

RE(f)USE , 40 Via della Fontanella di Borghese,

I always enjoy wandering along the magical street of Via della Fontanella di Borghese, in the historical heart of Rome. Not just for its history and culture. I go primarily to see Ilaria Venturini Fendi’s magical shop, RE(f)USE. Ilaria launched her ethical fashion brand Carmina Campus a few years ago because she wanted to make her business more sustainable and to find a way of extending the life of objects.

It is the only store I know of whose fashion and design objects are all made exclusively with recycled materials. They use all sorts of things – remnants from factories, discarded fabric, end-of-line stock, vintage snippets – which are then all assembled and reused to create something with a totally new shape and function. When you enter RE(f)USE, you feel like Alice in Wonderland: the selections of jewelry, accessories, tables, chairs, sofas, lamps, chandeliers and other pieces of design are all unique. There are all sorts of incredible works by some of the most unconventional designers from all over the world, including the Berlin-based Stuart Haygarth and the Belgian Charles Kaisin.

The first floor is the place that reflects Ilaria’s real passion. It’s all paneled with mirrors and stocked with dozens of handbags, each of them different styles, sizes and colours and upcycled by artisans from Italy and Africa. What makes them extra-special is that each piece carries a tag, telling its story, listing the materials that have been used to make it and the number of hours spent to produce it by hand. To me, this place is temple of design. It’s somewhere I love going into and never regret buying anything from.

Livia Firth is a film producer and campaigner for ethical fashion
Your address: The St. Regis Rome

The California chocolatier by Sally Perrin

Christopher Michael Chocolatier, 2346 Newport Blvd, Costa Mesa,

This is really a hidden gem, because it’s in an unassuming shopping center on the Newport Peninsula where you’d never expect to find something quite as incredible. It is total chocolate heaven. To the right, as you walk in, there’s a counter featuring all the truffles, ganaches and confections of the day, and to the left, ready-made packages which make easy-to-grab gifts, including the store’s famous chocolate bars with unique flavors.

The chef-owner, Christopher Michael Wood, discovered a chocolatier in SoHo in New York, and in 2006 decided to try to bring the same level of craft and detail to his native California. Every time I go to the Dana Point area, I have to go and get something: a bar, truffles, bonbons, chocolate-covered nuts... current favorites are his balsamic-caramel and chocolate-covered strawberries, his unusual bars, like the spicy pomegranate and lime and his lavender-infused caramels. My husband absolutely loves the Sizzling Bacon Bar, which is Venezuelan chocolate flavored with sea salt, smoked bacon and popping candy.

What’s great is that they take classics and twist them; they take a risk, which is what I like to do. I like the unusual, the untried, the unexpected. And I like the fact that it’s small and artisanal. Christopher takes care of every little detail, whether that’s the painstaking airbrushing of designs on his chocolates or the unique flavors he creates on the premises. I am not sure whether to thank the friend who brought a box to a dinner party we had at our home a few years ago. I had three pieces and have been hooked ever since! 

Sally Perrin is a designer of handbags and leather accessories

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The homewares store in Mexico City by Kiyan Foroughi

Common People, Emilio Castelar 149, Colonia Polanco,

This store, in a beautiful four-story 1940s colonial mansion, is on an upmarket street in the characterful area of Polanco, which is known for its architecture, restaurants and hotels. From the outside there is no hint of what is within and even when you step through the door, it seems more like a gallery than a store. Nothing’s straightforward-looking. All the merchandise looks as though it’s been caught on a strong breeze: there are bags, plates, cushions of all sorts, piled high and hanging from walls and roofs.

The idea of the owners, Monika Biringer and Max Feldman, was to create “a place filled with uncommon things for common people.” And that’s what it is. There’s something to contemplate wherever you look and nothing is the same. There are all sorts of names, from independent local artists to international figures. So you’ll get local companies such as TOSCA, which produces big, chunky jewelry, alongside Commes des Garçons and Vivienne Westwood, clothing piled alongside homewares, and high-tech gadgets next to projects by artists and musicians. It’s a bit like Colette in Paris. One minute you’ll be looking at books from Assouline, the next furniture from Vitra and then vintage pieces from the forager Emmanuel Picault.

The owners are involved in the creative scene in the area – fashion, design, art, music, everything – and incorporate that into the store wherever possible, which gives it a lovely creative edge. What’s great, too, is that although the assistants are incredibly cool, they’re not at all snobby and will know all about the makers: who they are, where they’re from and how they’ve made things. So every time you go in, you learn. A friend who recommended it to me suggested that I didn’t go in if I was in a hurry, and he was right. If you’re not shopping, then there’s a café and a beautiful ornate staircase to go up, to discover a whole other floor, then another, then another…

Kiyan Foroughi is CEO of the online jewelry and accessories store
Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City

The haberdasher in New York by Collette Dinnigan

Tinsel Trading Company, 828 Lexington Avenue,

This shop is so tiny that it would be easy to miss. Its previous address, on West 38th Street in the Garment District, was even smaller. But wherever its location, it has always been packed from ceiling to floor with treasures. Four generations of the same family have worked in the business since the current owner’s grandfather, Arch J. Bergoffen, took it on in 1933, specialising in French tinsel and metal threads, and it has much of the same charm, if not as much clutter or dust, as the original.

It’s the ultimate shop for treasure seekers: full of shiny, beautiful ornamentation that has been collected by its owners for decades, from all over the world. There are antique trims and beading from the 1930s and 1940s, metal fringing, tassels, vintage cards from 1900, old labels, waxed flowers. The things I most love are the buttons. In the old shop, you had to go through hundreds of boxes and jars to find the ones that were really special: those that were hand-painted, glass, covered in silk and velvet, collected from old military jackets. Sometimes they might only have enough for ten dresses; other times for whole collections.

Now the shop is much more organized. The buttons are all in boxes with a button sewn on to the front, so you know what’s inside. The rolls of fabric are also now merchandised according to colour, with a flower at the end of each roll, so the whole wall looks like a spring field.

What’s great fun is that you never know what you might find. Once I came out with a collection of big letters from the 1930s covered with real, old-fashioned glass glitter. Another time I found beautiful old tags and some quaint pieces of original embroidery and lace.

Today, it has been brought much more up-to-date; they now even have a website, which is handy if you can’t get there in person. Also, if you let them know what you want, they can often help you find it from one of their many contacts all over the world. It’s one of those quirky, quite peculiar places that is a real one-off. Just talking about it makes me long to go and rummage around in it.

Collette Dinnigan is a fashion designer based in Sydney
Your address: The St. Regis New York
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The sushi bar in Osaka by Maria McElroy

Yamane, 1-3-1 Doujima Kitaku (+81 6 6348 1460)

The exclusive Kitashinchi neighborhood is the beating heart of Osaka at night, and this sushi restaurant is right in the center of it. Above the narrow streets are a tangle of neon signs and boards inviting people inside, to secret little places where geishas once delighted customers. Because the area has such a lovely feeling, it’s where the cream of Osaka society goes. There are half a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants around, but for me and my Kyoto-born husband, Yamane is by far the best.

You’d never know from the outside that it was so special. It’s in an unassuming building and behind the sliding door is an intimate space, with a delicate blond-wood latticed sushi bar, behind which the master sushi chef Mr Yamane and his staff work.

There is nothing quite like sitting there, watching the action. Like most old traditional establishments, the fish from that morning’s catch at Sakai fish market is not on display, but kept in boxes of ice and taken out when the chefs need to slice it with their precision knives. Some of them have been sushi chefs for decades and are masters in local specialities: mehari, a heady combination of rice with fatty tuna and salmon caviar wrapped in pickled mustard or square hakozushi, topped with marinated mackerel and kelp. Although I always have their tuna, octopus and flounder sushi, I love their dashimaki tamago, a thick, warm rolled omelet, much softer and more pliable than those you find in Tokyo.

The food, as you’d expect from someone with such a precise eye, is presented in an extremely elegant way, on ceramic plates made by the famous ceramicist Ippento Nakagawa. And the smells that waft through the air, of warm soy sauce, incense and the freshness of the sea, are as enjoyable as the sounds of the chefs chatting and laughing. The people in this area of Japan are known to be very funny and full of life, and although everyone is hugely respectful of Mr Yamane, his restaurant is full of warmth and humor.

Maria McElroy is the founder of aroma M perfumes
Your address: The St. Regis Osaka

The stationery shop in Washington, D.C. by Fareed Zakaria

Thornwillow, The St. Regis D.C., 923 16th Street,

Entering Thornwillow is like entering a library or a gentleman’s club. It even has a “librarian” to look after you, who encourages you to have a cup of tea or a whiskey while you sit and browse books. It’s an extraordinary publishing house: a place where you can buy books, or get them printed, and walk out with incredibly beautiful stationery. My wife and I had our New Year cards printed there and as usual, the owner, Luke Ives Pontifell, came up with a wonderfully whimsical design: a flying pig!

He is one of those people who is extraordinarily wise although still pretty young. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and three-piece suits with a pocket square so you feel a bit like you’re talking to someone from another era.

We’ve also visited the place in which the books are made, an old coat factory in Newburgh, New York. There, we realized what a craft bookmaking is: they have lots of men, I think from Eastern Europe, who obviously make each book as a labor of love. They are expensive, but each one is fashioned by hand, their handmade paper covered in beautiful leather and each special for a different reason, whether it’s President Obama’s inaugural speech or a famous old novel they have reprinted.

I am lucky enough to have a set of simple notecards and matching envelopes printed with nothing but my name and a charming little vellum-based desk calendar that sits on a little gold easel. It’s a lovely old design and, in a world in which almost everything is on our phones, it is nice to have something on your desk that reminds you quickly about the passing of time. You don’t have to fiddle around to find the calendar app.

Thornwillow offers a reminder of the efficiency of paper and the beauty of the printed word. Whenever I visit, I am hit by not just the intellectual power of the printed word but the emotional power of seeing something beautiful written on paper. It always makes me feel great.

Fareed Zakaria presents CNN’s flagship international affairs program
Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.
Issue 3 - A Little Place I Know - Image 6
A Taste of Shangri-La - Traditional Dress Wuhou Temple

A Taste of Shangri-La

When Marco Polo visited Chengdu more than 700 years ago, he found the Chinese city refreshingly reminiscent of his hometown, Venice. “Several large rivers of fresh water come down from distant mountains to flow round the city, and through it. The branch-streams within the city are crossed by stone bridges of great size and beauty,” he observed. “Along the bridges on either side are fine columns of marble that support the roof; for all the bridges are covered with handsome wooden roofs richly decorated and painted in red. All along the bridges on either side are rows of booths devoted to the practice of various forms of trade and craft.”
Today, my first impressions of the capital of Sichuan province are not so different from his. Fresh water still flows through the city, crossed by charming bridges like those painted on willow-patterned china. The Anshun bridge supports a pagoda-roofed restaurant. Tea houses, temples and trees cling to riverbanks amid the silvery skyscrapers of Chengdu’s busy commercial centre. The city is one of the fastest-growing in the world, a magnet for high-tech companies such as Cisco and Dell and abuzz with new construction. Yet one still finds picturesque stalls piled high with bananas or bright yellow sunflowers, stacks of crimson bowls with ivory chopsticks and wicker trays of paper-white mushrooms.
Flying out of foggy Beijing to land at Chengdu is a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to believe that 20 percent of the world’s computers and two thirds of the world’s iPhones are made here. Perhaps its charm lies in the parks, lined with weeping willows, on the Jin river. Or the red-tiled tea houses, the exotic opera, and the food – “as spicy as its women,” as our not-so-politically-correct tour guide would have it. Or the laid-back attitude of the 14 million inhabitants, going about their business with roosters strapped to their backs, gliding through temples in saffron robes, sipping tea under silk parasols all along the riverbanks.
The capital of Sichuan has been a commercial hub ever since the city became a stopover for caravanserai on the silk route. In 1287 AD Marco Polo reported that entrance tolls into the city amounted to 1,000 gold pieces every day. Today, there are no charges. Instead, from the airport, travelers can be whisked to the splendour of Chengdu’s newest attraction, The St. Regis Hotel.
From here, in the capable hands of a chauffeur and an English-speaking guide, exploring the city is easy – and since Chengdu recently became the first city in western China to allow transit travelers a 72-hour visa-free stay, it has become a place from which to explore the country. That might be a daytrip south to Leshan to goggle at the one of the world’s largest Buddhas – or, in my case, a 560-mile journey north into the forested Minshan mountains in the hopes of meeting a panda in the wild.
I had come to Chengdu with a party of international conservationists from the World Wildlife Fund. Our plan was to visit the breeding program for giant pandas at the nursery just outside Chengdu, and then to trek into the nature reserves of northwestern Sichuan, home to the largest number of pandas in the wild.
But before we set off into the countryside, there is a whole city to see: a circuit of temples and tombs, and tea houses serving green tea, woody lapsang souchong and feisty oolong in lidded porcelain cups. At the River Viewing Pavilion Park, we are treated to acrobats bending over backwards (literally) to pour steaming jets of tea into porcelain cups from a teapot with a spout as long as that of a watering can. “Why run the risk of being scalded?” comments a fellow traveler wryly.
Where there is tea, there is also often music. At the aptly named Culture Park, the tea house doubles as an opera house, with ivory walls weathered like mahjong tiles and seats covered in red velvet. The performance that night is an extravaganza of song and dance, acrobatics, fire-eating and magic. Against a backdrop of lavish screens depicting autumnal leaves one moment, spring blossom the next, beautiful dancers with ghostly white faces and colorful brocades pirouette to percussive clanging and tinkling. “Now you see emperor become beggar,” promises our ever-present tour guide, introducing us to the ancient art of bian lian in which identities, even gender, are altered by swapping masks with great sleight of hand.
“Kept inside wide sleeves,” observes our friend, a hawk-eyed wildlife conservationist who carries his binoculars wherever he goes.



Wenshu temple monastery

In this city, nightlife, too, is fun and colorful. Raised high above the streets, red lanterns and hand-painted signs proclaim the fiery food for which Sichuan is famous. The city’s speciality is the chuan chuan xiang hotpot: bamboo shoot skewers of duck, pork, chicken or fish with vegetables, rolled in spicy oil and dipped into a bubbling broth. Salty, sweet, hot, spicy, sour, sometimes bitter, Sichuan food is never bland. The best local advice I am given is to ask for a menu with an English translation: something I really appreciate when I discover that fu qi fei pian is braised cow’s lungs, and when a fellow traveler discovers that his breakfast, which has the texture of a rubber boot and looks as if it has been dusted with gunpowder, is a thousand-year-old egg.
But then this city is full of surprises. Visiting the Qin Shi Qiao daily market early the next morning, we discover a variety of feet: of ducks, geese, pigs and roosters. Fish and eels wriggle in buckets. Lavender Peking bantams squawk in bamboo cages. Lotus leaves and flowers plucked from lily ponds, chestnuts and bamboo shoots, spices and star anise are piled high in baskets. Just outside, street vendors fan little braziers of hot coals to roast sweetcorn on skewers.
But there’s modernity, too. Beside the temples in which monks in saffron robes pray in a haze of incense and gardens towering with cypresses are the skyscrapers of the commercial district, and enormous shopping centres. On Jinli Street, a recently reconstructed treasure trove of kitsch framed by traditional-style architecture, we stroll amid Mao memorabilia and images of pandas printed on everything, from backpacks and caps to scarves and kites. In this part of the world, the creature is so revered that it is often used as the ultimate political bargaining tool. In 1972, following a visit by Richard Nixon that changed East-West relations for ever, the Chinese government gave two pandas to America which subsequently attracted millions of visitors.
To get our own real-life encounter, we drive six miles on the four-lane highway to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which has had well over 100 successful panda births. The cubs, which are bred using artificial insemination, are raised in incubators and kept in enclosures, more like parks than pens. Booted and gowned like doctors, we visit the nursery where seven hairless, pink panda cubs are curled up in incubators before being moved into the toddlers’ grassy enclosures.
Snoozing on tree stumps, posing for pictures, appearing to beam amiably, the juvenile bears are delightful. Although they have toys and wooden climbing frames to play with in their enclosures, the creatures’ main activity is feeding. Adults eat about 45lbs of bamboo every day, spend 16 hours a day chewing it, and the rest of their time asleep. Pandas won’t consider bamboo shoots more than a day old, so truckloads of the stuff from the mountainous north supplement the harvest from groves at the Research Base.
Sadly, efforts to reintroduce them to the wild have not been successful. A national survey from 2004 estimated there to be only about 1,600 pandas in the wild, 80 percent of which are in the 38 forest reserves in Sichuan Province. One such, the Wanglang Nature Reserve, is where we hope to encounter one.
Our journey begins on the flat, driving through farmlands outside Chengdu. Around rickety little white-walled houses are clotheslines and gardens dotted with duck ponds and fruit trees. Watermelons hang from vines, and the pepper plants that give Sichuan cuisine its kick can be seen clambering over walls. The area is intensively farmed and densely populated.
We travel on Highway 101, passing lorries loaded with squealing pigs, a cyclist with roosters in a bamboo cage weaving past buses, and stretch limos with smoked-glass windows. As the landscape of the Sichuan basin turns golden with wheat, traffic slows for combine harvesters to move sluggishly across it.
The rolling farmlands give way to mist-shrouded forest and mountains that rise 10,000 feet to the Tibetan Plateau. As the road narrows and begins to climb through steep, forested gorges, the color changes from grain to green, with pine, rhododendron and barberry hugging the slopes. As it winds around steep mountainside, the road sometimes slips away or is covered by landslides. Erosion is so bad that travel is only permitted in daylight. Along riverbeds, flat-bottomed boats trawl for stone and sand to rebuild the road, the boatmen reduced to the size of ants as we climb.

Sweet snacks in a city park

As dusk falls we stop at the small town of Tudiling. Yaks graze in the grassland and our hotel is surrounded by a cluster of little stalls lit by single lightbulbs selling Tibetan dolls, rice-paper drawings, Mao Zedong caps, incense and the carved stones and ammonite fossils, known as saligrams, that every Buddhist mountain traveler holds sacred.
Heading west for the hills of Wanglang early the following day, our route takes us past roadside beehives and clusters of beautifully scented white trumpet flowers growing in the rocky shale. Long ago a traveler brought juniper here, and there are juniper berries and peppercorns and honey for sale at roadside stalls. We stop at one where groomed yaks, snowy white, have red pom-poms stuck on their blackened horns. Stallholders invite us to pay to pose for pictures with their beasts, wearing red cowboy hats. In the thin, crisp air our breath steams even at midday. We eat rice and drink green tea from small bowls.
As gears grind round hairpin bends and our teeth chatter as we cross precipices, there isn’t one of us who wishes we had taken the easy route to the nature reserve by flying to Jiuhuang airport to reach our next stop, the bustling tourist resort of Jiuzhaigou. “Just ten years ago this was a village with 2,000 residents,” our WWF field officer tells us. “Today about 20,000 tourists a day head to Jiuzhaigou.” Mass tourism is as much a threat to panda habitat as the logging which the state has now prohibited in the region.
Driving down into the Jiuzhaigou Valley, a necklace of hotels and casinos and flashing neon signs appears in the middle of nowhere. A plastic palm tree stands forlornly beneath a street lamp. It’s not pretty.
Just outside the town, however, lies the spectacular Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, studded with turquoise lakes, fast-flowing waterfalls, forest trails and snowy peaks rising to 14,800 feet above sea level. Unesco has declared it a world heritage site. It is a paradise for birdwatchers and botanists. The water is so clear that when I drop a seed into a deep pool in the lush marshlands, I can watch it sink gently all the way to the bottom. High levels of calcium carbonate in the water turn the area’s lakes the most remarkable shades of jade and turquoise, giving rise to such poetic names as Promising Bright Bay, Five-Colored Pool, Pearl Shoal Waterfall – even Panda Lake.
While it’s a beautiful stop-off, we have another three and a half hours to travel on a hazardous road to Pingwu and from there, a further 75 miles to Wanglang Nature Reserve on a road pitted with craters. Sheer cliffs rise above us on our climb. We stop to photograph the only other vehicle on the road, a tractor carrying a family dressed formally in silk robes as if on their way to a wedding ceremony.
Just as the sun is slipping behind the towering mountains, we reach the Wanglang Nature Reserve, where the WWF has helped to establish an eco-lodge complete with learning center and a veranda from which to admire the spectacular view. At 9,800 feet, though, it’s not just the views that take your breath away. It’s the thin mountain air.
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we are ready to explore. Outside the lodge, a wooden sign painted in Chinese and English explains what awaits those who can make it: “Baisha valley is formed by the rockslide. Walk along this way you can see grand mountains covered with snow, cuckoo and trees buried by mud flow. Single seed Savin and spruce are the main trees in this stretch of forest. There are lots of orchids under single seed Savin. Every year the best time to view and admire the orchids is from May to August.”
We begin in the petrified forest, where strangely sculptural, silvery black and white fossilized trees are surrounded by spruce, fir and Alpine cypress. Here wild roses bloom, pale pink and yellow, and the sudden, sharp lemon tang of azaleas reminds me that China is one of the world’s great sources of plants that have now spread across the world. This ancient forest contains species I have only ever encountered before in London’s Kew Gardens: the Venus flytrap, rare fritillaries, vivid orchids, and the curious Chinese sumac, a much-prized ingredient in Chinese medicine. All are vulnerable to plant hunters, and so anti-poaching teams regularly patrol the reserve’s perimeter. They are also charged with protecting the native fauna, which includes musk oxen and golden snub-nosed monkeys, as well as the elusive panda. We hold little hope of seeing one of the latter, though, when the park’s director, Jiang Shiwei, warns us that he has never seen a panda in the wild, and he’s lived here for seven years.
As we climb, the going gets tougher. Suspension bridges with a lattice of saplings span torrents. Tangled undergrowth lashes us and bamboo saplings whip across our path. It’s cold, too. The watery sun at this high altitude never penetrates the dense forest. Suddenly a shout goes up from one of the park patrollers. He has found panda droppings. “How old is it?” “Six or seven months.” “So it’s only a panda cub, then?” “No, the feces is six months old.”
Not exactly hot on the trail of a panda, we decide to call it a day and return to the lodge to prepare for the long ride back to Chengdu.
While disappointed, I remind myself that Peter Matthiessen wrote his bestseller The Snow Leopard without spotting a single one of the beasts on his trek across the high Himalayas. And we do know that they are out there. On YouTube there is footage captured last year of an impatient giant panda hustling her dawdling cub on a high mountain pass in Anzihe Nature Reserve, about 65 miles from Chengdu.
Even though we haven’t managed to find this elusive creature, the magnificence of the landscape that these solitary creatures inhabit, with its fast-flowing rivers, precipitous gorges and blue mountains wreathed in mist, more than compensates. The Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, who lived during the 8th century, described the journey to Sichuan as being more difficult than the road to heaven. Back in Chengdu, and about to fly halfway back across the world, I reflect that it was worth making that hazardous journey. For it was here that we discovered a real Shangri-La.


Your address: The St. Regis Chengdu

A Buddhist monk at Wenshu