Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Colorful Camellias


By Anne Butler

Chef John Folse
Chef John Folse
Louisiana’s beloved culinary ambassador to the world, John Folse, has developed an international reputation as a fabulous chef as well as the brilliant head of a burgeoning empire of food processing plants, catering companies, dairies, product suppliers, cookbooks and book publishers, and just about everything else his fertile imagination can conceive. The man must never sleep. But as if that were not enough, Chef Folse is also one of the most generous professionals in the field, freely offering his time and talents and facilities for just about every charitable non-profit cause there is.

Consequently, when the little Feliciana Nature Society contacted him to help with its Camellias in the Country festival in St. Francisville the first weekend in February 2009, he was already inclined to offer assistance. And then they made him an offer he simply could not refuse, combining as it did his incredible culinary talents with his great fascination with history and heritage as well as a growing interest in horticulture.

The Camellia Festival is sponsored each year by the little Feliciana Nature Society, which also conceived and hosts the annual Audubon BirdFest and Feliciana Hummingbird Festival. Just as the BirdFest is an ideal activity in the area most treasured by artist John James Audubon when he painted a large number of his Birds of America there in the early 1820s, so the Camellia Festival is particularly suited for the area to which the 1831 Encylopedia Americana referred as “the garden of Louisiana.”

And so it was, for once the great indigo and cotton plantations of this English section of Louisiana had been established, attention turned from the practical to the merely pleasing and the early manor houses were quickly surrounded by formal gardens laid out in orderly bordered beds and patterned parterres, protected from roaming livestock by picket fences and presided over by classical marble statues. Great allees of live oaks were planted, their arched canopies soon to provide much-needed shade, and lattice-sided summer houses offered cool quiet retreats.

The glorious antebellum gardens of the St. Francisville area, many inspired by the great plantings of Europe, combined the plantation mistress’s passion for ornamental plants with a fortuitious climate, rich soil and unlimited labor. From the surrounding woods were transplanted ferns, trilliums and oak-leaf hydrangea, violets, dogwood and wild plum trees. But the pride of the gardens were the camellias, and these had to be imported.

These colorful natives of the Far East were initially carried to other lands by missionaries and early medical men after trade with the Orient was opened in the early1500s by the Portuguese and their Black Ships. The trading companies dealing in spices, silks, porcelains and other treasures all had medical officers who became the first to study native plants of the Far East, initially for their medical propensities. A camellia japonica specimen collected in China in 1677 by a physician with the East India Company introduced this botanical novelty to England. By the close of the 18th century, the first camellias had been brought overseas to the United States.

Rosedown Plantation garden walk.
Garden Walk at Rosedown
From a nursery in New York, young Martha Turnbull first ordered camellias to grace the gardens at Rosedown Plantation, plantings inspired by those seen on her wedding trip to the Continent in 1835. Her gardens would eventually expand to 28 acres of formal beds surrounding the grand Greek Revival house, and her gardening diaries spanning some 60 years of love and labor proved invaluable in the careful restoration of the Rosedown grounds and gardens. Daily she recorded her continual efforts, especially to propagate the hundreds of camellias, with advice on their proper care. “Japonicas must have water over the leaves once a week and plenty of water otherwise during the whole summer; half sand and woods-earth and a little cow manure when first potted, and engraft early in the spring, and they must be well shaded in the whole summer.”

From the mistress of Catalpa Plantation Martha Turnbull borrowed some helpful tips: “Mrs. Fort puts one gallon Guano to a barrel of water to water her plants,” and it was no wonder the camellias and hydrangeas at Catalpa flourished as well. At Butler Greenwood Plantation hundreds of camellias were being ordered from eastern nurseries as well to thrive in the formal gardens around the lovely summer house, while at Afton Villa gardens the camellias held their own with the famed Pride of Afton azaleas lining the magnificent oak avenue.

Every plantation had its grove of camellias, and many of the townhouses in St. Francisville as well. A number of these plantations and gardens today are open to the public for tours, and there is no lovelier time of year to visit than the cooler months when the camellias are in full bloom. The Feliciana Nature Society began the Camellias in the Country festival to encourage visitors to do just that, but in 2009 an extra added attraction promises to greatly enhance the enjoyment, for this year visitors can not only see the camellias, they can actually TASTE them, thanks to Chef John Folse and the lucky visitation by a distinguished French physician to one of the local plantation Bed & Breakfasts.

Docteur Pierre Gausset, “Ancien Externe des Hopitaux de Paris,” enjoyed the hospitality of the Bed & Breakfast at Butler Greenwood Plantation in early 2008 and admired the more than 150 ancient camellias blooming in the formal and sunken gardens there. Had the owner ever tasted, he wondered, Vin de Camelia? He highly recommended it. In fact, he happened to have the recipe and would be happy to share it, since the St. Francisville area obviously had plentiful ingredients. Written in French, of course, the recipe is a combination of white or red wine, eau de vie de fruits, camellia blossoms, sugar and vanilla, all allowed to rest for 20 days as the wine absorbs the aroma of the camellia blossoms before bottling.

Butler Greenwood
Butler Greenwood Lawn
Chef John Folse, of course, rose to the challenge and enthusiastically set about making a few test batches, pronouncing them superb. Not only that, but he also revealed ancient recipes for ratifies and bounces, cordials and fruit wines that had traditionally been made in the area. While most of the good grape wines and clarets were shipped to Louisiana in great wooden casks and wicker-covered demijohns from Europe in antebellum days, every little local fruit and berry that would ferment was turned into some sort of enjoyable beverage, from figs and plums to wild cherries and dewberries, muscadines and peaches. And the newly popular aromatherapy, far from being a modern invention, Chef Folse explains is also as old as the hills, for every plantation mistress knew how to make scented waters---rosewater, orange blossom water---for perfuming the air and body. Camellia wine is such an aromatic infusion. The flowering plants of the nineteenth century gardens were rarely merely ornamental; they had other uses as well, for seasonings and preservatives, also for medicinal purposes. The most strongly scented were used to mask less pleasant odors, such as during wakes and funerals.

Chef Folse unveils his Camellia Wine, produced from camellia blossoms from St. Francisville gardens, at a presentation on Friday, February 6, at 6 p.m. at the historic Audubon Market Hall on Royal Street in St. Francisville. Guests will have the opportunity to sample the wine, perhaps even purchase some, and Chef Folse will also autograph his remarkable cookbooks for interested visitors at the wine and cheese reception following his presentation.

The fifth annual Camellias in the Country program continues on Saturday, February 7, at Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site. Site manager Patricia Aleshire will lead a workshop on “Knowing and Growing Camellias in the Deep South” at the visitor center beginning at 9 a.m. Lunch at Audubon Café will be followed by a guided walking tour of Rosedown’s extensive formal gardens, where participants will enjoy seeing outstanding examples of both heirloom and contemporary japonicas. The gardens at Rosedown are simply spectacular this time of year.

Catalpa Plantation
Camellia at Catalpa
A $25 registration fee covers the Chef Folse presentation and reception Friday evening as well as the Saturday programs and lunch. Admission for the Friday reception alone is $10, and advance reservations are highly recommended; telephone 800-488-6502 or 225-635-3110 for information and reservations, or visit online www.audubonbirdfest.com or stfrancisvillefestivals.com. All proceeds benefit the Feliciana Nature Society and support its commendable efforts to encourage appreciation and preservation of the natural resources of the area.

The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. The area’s two state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are some unique shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district. For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com. (our Festival Website)

For high resolution photos, email Patrick Walsh at pat@bluegoosemedia.com

Friday, January 02, 2009

Camellias in the Country

Camellias in the Country
February 6 & 7, 2009

The Feliciana Nature Society and Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site will host the 5th annual Camellias in the Country program on February 6 & 7, 2009. The two-day event will kick off on Friday evening, February 6, at the historic Market Hall on Royal Street in St. Francisville. Doors will open at 6:00 p.m. for a wine and cheese reception, followed at 6:30 by award-winning chef, author, and TV celebrity, John Folse, who will conduct a program on camellia wine.

The program will continue on Saturday, February 7, beginning at 9:00 a.m., at the visitor center at Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site. The morning session will feature Rosedown manager Patricia Aleshire leading a workshop, “Knowing and Growing Camellias in the Deep South.” Lunch at Audubon Café will be followed by an extensive walking tour of Rosedown’s historic gardens where participants can view some of the best heirloom and contemporary varieties of camellias on the grounds.

A $25 registration fee covers the John Folse reception on Friday night as well as the Saturday program and lunch. Admission for the Friday reception only is $10. Due to limited seating, advance reservations are highly recommended. Proceeds benefit projects of the Feliciana Nature Society. For reservations and more information call 1-800-488-6502 toll free or local 225-635-3110. Visit www.audubonbirdfest.com.