Midcoast Maine Reviews – Volume I (Leave the lobster, take the fish!)

Wow, back to back blog posts!  That’s what happens when your wife is away and you’re all alone.  No, this isn’t a pity party – but Paula is in Argentina and I have some time on my hands.  Last weekend was the Memorial Day weekend – for many, the beginning of summer.  Knowing Paula was going to be gone, I organized a little guys weekend at La Escondida del Mar (our little slice of paradise in Maine).  That’s a tough weekend to have a guy’s weekend – too many family gatherings – but I guess Ron and Joe’s respective wives went soft on them and gave the green light (thank you Jeanine and Cindy!).  The plan was to meet in NYC Thursday night and drive up very early on Friday morning.  The weather forecast fluctuated all week, but Friday was shaping up to be a warm day.  After being dormant for 2 years, I had had the pool rehabilitated (and returned it to a saltwater pool), and newly opened that week.  Come hell or high water (or cold air temps), I was going to use the pool at least once on the weekend.  We made it up to Maine by 11 am, and quickly decamped to the pool.  Ed, my pool guy, had planned to set the pool temp at 80.  80!??  Far too warm for my cheap pocket as I thought about the propane bills from the previous winter.  75 sounds pretty good. No…75 isn’t good…75, to skin temperature at 96, is pretty damn cold!  In any case, after the first shock of cold, the pool felt nice, and we spent a lazy afternoon listening to music and drinking beer.  The three of us had different tastes in music, with some overlap.  I am firmly rooted in the 70’s (Zeppelin; Floyd; etc.); Joe was stuck in the 80’s (Style Council; Tears for Fears); and Ron is our festival guy (Umphrey’s McGee; Avett Bros; Government Mule).  Having one Bluetooth wireless speaker complicated things, and there was frequent hijacking of the Bluetooth connection – but I came out with a new appreciation for Paul Weller and Umphrey’s McGee (go download the Zonkey album, now!).  Anyway, despite the weather turning cool on us (we went from pool and beers to fleeces and bourbon by the firepit in 24 hours), it was a great weekend of fun, and resulted in my first explorations of the Boothbay area, and a few small reviews for those that may be enticed to come here.

Before I get into the (mini) reviews, I do want to touch on the subject of trust.  Maine people are an interesting study in contrasts.  While much has been written about the taciturn Mainer who doesn’t trust people “from away” – we have been pleasantly surprised by the trust extended to us in our encounters with most businesses here.  As some of you probably know, a second house isn’t easy to maintain, especially getting one that wasn’t used much and had some undiscovered maintenance issues.  As a result, there are a lot of on-going needs (dock service; landscaping; pool; snow plowing; etc.) and the inevitable unexpected issues (appliance repair; HVAC repair; etc.).  We’re used to arranging for service, and providing the obligatory credit card to either pay, or guarantee payment – but it seems that here in Maine, trust still exists.  I can’t tell you how many of our service providers have just asked for a billing address – no credit card needed, I’ll just send you a bill!  It even extends to retail business – I’ll talk in a bit about Barb Scully’s Lobster and Oyster stand at her house – hundreds (probably thousands) of dollars of oysters and lobsters open to the public, with a prominent sign that indicates if she isn’t around, take what you want and leave the money – the honor system!!  This morning (in NYC), as I dreamed wistfully about how trusting Mainers were…I was jarred awake at 6am by my cell phone – it was the water truck company (my pool needed to be topped off) asking if there was anyone home (in Maine) since they don’t take credit cards, prefer cash, and wanted payment before delivering the water!  Ahhh, back to reality!

As I said, the weekend was good fun, and we took the opportunity to explore a bit.  First stop, on Friday afternoon, was to two businesses, side by side, in Damariscotta that I’d like to give a shout out to.  Fisherman’s Catch, located on Main St. just as you cross the bridge from Newcastle, is a nice little seafood purveyor.  It’s a small shop, but fully stocked with plenty of fresh lobsters; clams; mussels; oysters; scallops; fish – all fresh, and most locally caught.  It’s my “go to” local seafood seller, and I highly recommend it.  If you’ve read this blog before, you might have caught my post on Oysters, where I speak prominently about oyster farming in Midcoast Maine, particularly on the Damariscotta.  I am thrilled to be living so close to such an amazing fishery, and Fisherman’s Catch always has several varieties to choose from.  Heath Reed is the owner – always a smile, always helpful. We ended up picking up 3 dozen Norumbegas – oysters so fresh I have no doubt they were harvested that morning – and 4 pound of Littleneck clams for a spaghetti vongole we planned on for Saturday night.  Note that they will also ship, overnight, anywhere in the U.S.  Right next door is Riverside Butcher.  August Avantaggio opened the shop a couple of years ago, and I’m happy to see it seems to be thriving.  Oftentimes specialty shops like this (especially in small towns) don’t survive.  Riverside is a full-service butcher shop – they always have amazing meat and other items (including some non-traditional, but wonderful, empanadas), and what they don’t have on display, they can get, or they can cut.  On a previous visit I was pleasantly surprised to find that August was familiar with Argentine Asado and could provide the types of cuts I was looking for to supply the asado.  I highly recommend this shop as well. The similarities in both shops highlights everything you want in a business: (1) they are knowledgeable about their product; (2) their prices are reasonable; (3) their quality is outstanding; (4) they are always ready with a smile.  These are the types of shops we all need to support – and they both have my business! Between the oysters and steaks, we were set – and I was able to get both without walking 5 steps between them!

The next place I want to review was, for us, the highlight of our trip.  We woke up Saturday to a 30-degree temperature drop (common, unfortunately, at this time of year in Maine), and overcast skies.  There would be no swimming today.  Well – didn’t matter…just made the morning coffee that more pleasant.  Let me digress here for a second on coffee.  I started out my adult life hating coffee, but soon progressed to drinking a milked up, sugared up beverage that I’m sure was flavored with a touch of coffee.  Over time, the proportion of milk and sugar decreased, until by my early 30’s, I was drinking it like my father used to – black.  By my late 30’s I was beginning my transition…to full on coffee snob.  Starbucks was my entrée.  This continued through my 40’s, progressing well beyond Starbucks (too pedestrian) – when I first met Paula I was hitting up Stumptown on 29th and Broadway with my pal (Hi Jim!) once a week, parsing through all of the beans to get the freshest, and only using a burr grinder on them.  And then something happened.  It was a Sunday morning…and I discovered with horror that I had run out of Stumptown beans.  It was really early (another sad by-product of getting older – you can’t sleep), and the only place open was a corner bodega, where I found this – a little red tub of Folgers Classic Roast.  What!  Was this what I was reduced to?  However, desperation for my morning brew overcame my disgust.  I dug out the old Mr. Coffee machine we had in the closet, and brewed up a cup (thankfully, it had a “bold” setting).  And to my surprise – it wasn’t bad.  In fact, it was pretty darn good.  I managed to get some of my precious Stumptown beans the next day, but not wanting to waste the tub of Folgers (I am an honorary Yorkshireman), I began blending it in with the Stumptown.  And so, I devolved, so to speak, gradually turning a 90/10 blend of Stumptown/Folgers into a 10/90…and eventually 100%, full on Folgers.  If this keeps up, I can envision returning to milk and sugar in my 70’s, and by my 80’s I will be back, once again, to diapers and hating coffee (no…just kidding about the diapers!).  Ok, where was I?  Oh, yeah coffee.  Coffee on a cold Maine morning is wonderful.  Unfortunately, Ron, while putting on a good game face, is still in the coffee snob portion of his life…Joe seems to be transitioning, and I think he was fine with the Folgers.  Ok, where were we?  Oh yeah – the highlight of the weekend.  I’ve completely wasted this paragraph, so time to start another.

Bet’s Famous Fish Fry is a local fish shack in Boothbay.  If you drive down Rt. 27 to Boothbay, you can’t miss it – just before Mr. Coulombe’s new roundabout, on the left –  a pretty little shack with picnic tables, and lots of people.  Now, this isn’t Red’s Eats.  You won’t find a lobster roll here, which is why, I suspect, that it seems to be more of a local place than a tourist destination.  For me (and I’m guessing for the locals), I hope it stays that way (so why are you writing about it on a blog????  Because it’s my blog, that’s why!).  Tourists come to Maine and they want lobster rolls.  I can hear many people now “Oh fish sandwich…big deal – what’s so great about that?”.  It is a big deal.  Bet’s has, hand’s down, the best fish sandwich you will have…anywhere…ever…period.  First let me comment on the portions.  You approach the window and see the menu – fried fish, several different ways.  And not just any fish – fresh haddock.  Ok, we all agreed – fish sandwiches all around.  3 fish sandwiches, please.  “You want the whole or half sandwich?”.  Oh – come on!  Three big guys, are you kidding – whole please.

Half Portion!!

She could tell we were neophytes.  “It’s a whole pound of fish on the sandwich – you sure?”.  By now our confidence was starting to crack…a whole pound?  We looked at each other and gave her a very shaky nod yes.  Sensing our uncertainty, she said “Let me show you a whole sandwich” – as our eyes followed her hand, we were in awe at the enormity!  “Half sandwiches, please” we quickly said in unison.  No time to be brash – an unfinished sandwich would shatter our reputations.  She smiled knowingly, took our money (cash only please), and we wandered over to the picnic tables to wait.  The sandwiches come with your choice of homemade tartar sauce, or homemade dill sauce.  As newbies, we asked for both (good choice, as we were to find – both are fantastic).  No fast food here – each order is cooked up fresh.  You can tell just from the fragrance of frying fish that they are serious about the food here – the oil is fresh.  One thing that always puts me off (and is immediately noticeable by the odor) is when a place stretches between oil changes on its fryer.  Not here – only the clean smell of fresh oil.  We waited about 10 minutes, and the sandwiches arrived.  The half sandwiches.  Unbelievable!  The fish is battered, but the coating isn’t really heavy.  The filets are thick pieces of haddock.  They were fried to a golden brown and piled high on a bun.  Even with a half sandwich, it’s a little tough getting your mouth around the bun – you’ll have to make an exploratory bite first to fit it in.  Let me just say, here and now, that you won’t find a better fish sandwich anywhere.  Joe lamented the fact that, after having the sandwich at Bet’s, he’ll never be able to eat another fish sandwich other than here, as all others will pale in comparison.  Note that the drinks will be from a vending machine; and we didn’t try the fries (I’m sure they are equally good – but there was no sense in filling up on fries…and we’d have never finished them anyway).  Even if the portion size were not so immense, the quality of the fresh fish fried to perfection would put this place on top of my list (and by the way – $9 for a half sandwich – that’s a steal!) Do not miss this spot.

The day was still relatively young, so we wandered around the Boothbay peninsula a bit.  It’s a beautiful part of Midcoast Maine – lots of Islands, inlets, peninsulas, etc.  We took a spin around Southport Island, and headed to Cozy Harbor, passing Robinson’s Wharf on the way (will be subject of another review at some point, but needless to say I’ll be giving it a thumbs up).  Oliver’s is a small, upscale restaurant located in Cozy Harbor, a picturesque little village on the east side of Southport Island (no ferries needed – it’s connected to the mainland via a bridge).  I’m not sure what it was before, but it’s been renovated within the last few years, and part of Paul Coulombe’s growing empire (Paul Coulombe is a wealthy businessman that lives on Southport – it appears people have a love/hate relationship with him, but from my perspective, he seems like he is a big supporter of the area).  Paula and I have tried to visit Oliver’s on two previous visits, but were thwarted on both occasions, once because it was closed and once due to a private party.  The location is perfect, right on a stunning little harbor.  Oliver’s itself, while beautiful and clean inside, feels a little artificial.  Perhaps it’s because I’m used to (and expect) a little wear and tear on these seaside places, and I’m not (yet) a local.  In any case, we were there today just for a quick bloody mary (the previous night’s bourbon tasting, preceded by wine, beer, and champagne, had done us in – so a bloody mary was a good entrée back).  We were shown to a nice outdoor table under a covered balcony.  Service was friendly and fast, and three bloody mary’s were soon in front of us.  They were quite good, with a large shrimp and celery as the accompaniments – and very spicy as I like them.  I was shocked, however, to find out that they actually didn’t contain any vodka.  Apparently, Oliver’s doesn’t have a license to serve distilled spirits – so their cocktails are made with – wine.  Yup, wine.  Well, to be fair, it’s a specialized fermented wine product that’s been developed just for situations like this where an establishment has a beer/wine license, but not one for hard liquor.  Anyway, I honestly couldn’t have noticed the difference between it and one made with vodka.  I have no idea how the food is – we’ll return sometime for a follow-up visit and try the food – but I can give it a provisional thumbs up as the location is stellar, the service is great, and the bloody mary was just right.

By now it was late afternoon, and we needed to get to the Hannaford’s in Damariscotta to pick up a few things for dinner.  I then remembered another place that I’d been wanting to try – Round Top Ice Cream.  It wouldn’t be summer in Maine without a trip to one of the many seasonal ice cream stands dotting this beautiful state.  Round Top, named for a high point just above Damariscotta, started life as a dairy farm just after World War I.  The ice cream stand has been there since the 1920’s…yes, almost 100 years!  Started as a way to utilize more of the production from their prize Holsteins, the dairy farm itself closed in 1968, but the ice cream stand has survived and thrived.  I love places like this…unpretentious, simple.  I like the fact that, as far as I can tell, they employ local high school students – a perfect fit as it’s a summer business.  While it was pretty cool when we visited, there was still quite a full parking lot – always a good sign.  Upon entering, we were charmed by the simplicity – a large converted barn, with a simple counter and about 10 coolers behind.  While they did have a soft serve machine, it was clear that hand dipped cones were what they were about.  We were a little overwhelmed with all the flavors, and particularly intrigued by the flavor “Alewife Pudding” (alewife is a local fish similar to a sardine; turns out this was just Round Top having fun, as it was actually chocolate with M&M’s and espresso beans).  In the end, it was Strawberry and Banana for Joe; Salted Caramel and Eagle Tracks (a vanilla/oreos/reese’s pieces mix)   for Ron; and Salted Caramel and Butter Pecan for me.  This is what ice cream is (or should be) all about – fresh, homemade ice cream; lots of great flavors; families just having fun.  If you come to Midcoast Maine, this is highly worth a stop.

Saturday night was pretty low-key – we had learned our lesson the previous night and went easy on the bourbon.  Dinner was a nice Spaghetti Vongole (unfortunately without fresh parsley, as both Joe and I had been fooled by a bunch of Cilantro masquerading as Parsley – but it didn’t matter), accompanied by a Saint Emilion that Joe had kindly brought from his cellar.  We did finish the evening around the firepit but went easy on the drinking; as a result, we woke up Sunday morning in much better shape than the previous morning.  A full breakfast was in order – eggs, bacon, the works.  It was, unfortunately, another overcast and cool day, but no matter.  The salt air and pine scent of coastal Maine can’t be replicated – and yet another reason I love it there.  By early afternoon, we were up for another adventure.  Today it was time to have a lobster roll – the boys had been promised.  First, let me say – while I like lobster, it’s one of those things I can have once or twice a season, and I’m happy not to have more.  Paula could eat it every night of the week, but I find a little goes a long way.  While this may seem a bit blasphemous in Maine, I’ve increasingly found that this is a sentiment shared by many Mainers.  Tourists go crazy for lobster, and particularly, lobster rolls.  The Maine lobster roll has become one of the unofficial symbols of the state.  Every place has their own “recipe” so to speak (it’s really about overall preparation, as there isn’t much to a lobster roll) – but generally an authentic Maine lobster roll will be fresh lobster piled on griddled, split top hot dog roll.  You’ll find these split top hot dog rolls all over New England, and they are a perfect vehicle for the lobster, as you can griddle up the roll on both sides to get a crispy brown exterior.  Various places will change up the way they prepare the lobster inside the roll – some places only use butter; some only use mayo – but simplicity is best.  You won’t find lettuce or other accompaniments.  Today we were going to the Boothbay Lobster Wharf, which I had heard served a fantastic (and huge) lobster roll in a nice setting.  It’s right on the water, with a little complex consisting of an indoor bar, an outdoor lobster stand steaming whole lobsters, and a window serving lobster rolls and other sandwiches.  While the day was cool, we decided to get some lobster rolls and a beer, and eat at one of the many outdoor tables by the water.  Your choices on lobster rolls were the regular or large.  The large wasn’t cheap ($34 – but lobster rolls in Maine, even a regular one, are going to set you back around $25).  Joe was up first and was on the verge of getting the regular size – but Ron and I had to intervene and mention that the regular was probably the ladies/child portion.  He quickly switched to the large, not wanting to come across as wimpy.  Ron then ordered the regular, and I got the crab roll…Joe was on his own.  Haha!  We grabbed a beer (Ron continued with his mid-day bloody mary) and waited for our rolls.  The setting is just perfect – while it was a little cool that day, this was the place to have a lobster roll – right on the water; a working lobster wharf; gorgeous view of the Maine coast.  Joe went to pick up the rolls, and we enjoyed the view.  We noticed he was struggling with the tray a bit as he approached with our food.  His lobster roll wasn’t just large – it was ginormous!!  There must have been the equivalent of two full lobsters stuffed into the roll (which you couldn’t even really see for the lobster).  Our rolls seemed anemic by comparison, especially my runty crab roll.  While he had a brief moment of hesitation on how he was even going to eat it, Joe quickly tucked in, and before we knew it, our rolls were resting comfortably in our (ample) bellies.  I like the lobster rolls here – for me, I like my lobster roll with a touch more mayo than most places use – and the Boothbay Lobster Wharf was just right.  My crab roll was delicious – I usually opt for crab rolls instead of lobster rolls – full of sweet Maine crab meat bound with just a touch of mayo.  This place is all you want in a lobster roll joint – absolutely fresh seafood; beautiful rustic setting; fast and friendly service.  So far, my favourite lobster roll place in Midcoast Maine.  We reluctantly waddled back to the car to continue our meanderings, fully satisfied with our choice.

After taking a nice drive out to see the Pemaquid Point lighthouse, we wandered back to Edgecomb to prepare for dinner.  Actually, we had quite stuffed ourselves all weekend, and none of us were thinking about anything big for dinner.  Ron wanted to try to get some live lobsters to bring back to Jeanine (he had an extremely early flight out the next morning), but when we got to Fisherman’s Catch, it had just closed (early closing at 4pm on Sundays).  No worries – I remembered a place that just might be open – a place I had been wanting to try for a while.  We headed out of Damariscotta and took the River Road turnoff to head down the northeast, Damariscotta river side of Edgecomb.  Our destination – The Lobster Store.  Also called Barbara Scully’s Oyster and Lobster Market.  Barbara Scully is a local legend in these parts (“these parts”? – what am I – a cowboy?  sorry, but it sounded right!).  She was instrumental in getting oyster farming started on the Damariscotta River.  Working with the Darling Marine Center, Scully (a zoologist by education), Scully began experimenting with oyster farming on the Damariscotta almost 32 years ago.  Her Glidden Point Oyster Farm was one of the first oyster farms in this area of Maine, but many more soon followed.  Now, the oysters from this region are well known, and enjoyed, all over the world.  Barbara sold Glidden Point a few years ago, but then opened her roadside market (it’s a quaint little building adjacent to her house) selling clams, fresh oysters, and lobsters.  We pulled up to the small building and breathed a sigh of relief as we noticed it was open.  As mentioned previously, Barbara operates on the honor system when she isn’t around – which is remarkable.  In this case we were greeted first by one of her dogs, and then Barbara herself came out.  I introduced myself (as I expected to be a quasi-regular in these parts, and my house was less than 15 minutes away), and we talked about the oysters she had available.  There were three choices: Dodge Cove; Norumbegas; and Ring Points.  Barbara spent some time talking to us about how each was grown and harvested slightly different, resulting in different flavors.  She also talked about the unique characteristics of the Damariscotta River, and various pinch points which stir up the phytoplankton during tides, providing a great environment for oyster growth.  Unfortunately for Ron, she had just sold the last of her lobsters, but we picked up 3 dozen oysters (a dozen of each) and headed home.  Barbara’s little shop is another one of those places I highly recommend – she is highly knowledgeable and stocks amazing product.  Interestingly enough, we asked Barbara if she still ate oysters after all these years – she laughed and said she preferred a nice ribeye!

We headed back to the house and agreed that dinner was just going to be the oysters, and a little cheese/charcuterie that night. The oysters were, like Friday night, the stars.  Accompanied by Joe’s house made mignonette, we polished them off in short order.  Ron and I took the shucking duties (although Ron was roundly chastised for not cutting the oysters free of the shell for his shucked oysters!).  After another fire-pit night (along with one of my neighbors, Eric, who brought over two dozen fresh eggs from his chickens!), we called it a relatively early night.  For Ron, this was the end of the weekend as he had that early flight.  Joe and I had one last stop.  Heading to the airport at midday on Monday, we got across the Wiscasset bridge and were presented with two choices.  On the right, the granddaddy of all lobster roll shacks in Maine…the most well-known…the famous Red’s Eats.  On the left, the relatively obscure (for those from away) Sprague’s.  The line at Red’s was already quite long (at least an hour and a half) for this early in the season.  Sprague’s had no line.  The choice was easy (and one that was pre-selected as I already knew what I was doing).  We pulled into the parking lot at Sprague’s, which, unlike Red’s, actually sits on the water.  I’ve never understood the hype about Red’s.  This has been written about many times, but it’s weird how celebrity starts.  Red’s celebrity origins are a bit murky, but I think it was “discovered” in the pre-internet days through a couple of newspaper reviews out of state (perhaps the NY times?).  It was always a well-known spot, going back to the 50’s – but over the years it has become the number one lobster roll destination for tourists – much to the displeasure of some locals, as it results in notorious delays and backups on Rt. 1 during the summer.  Anyway, I’ve had lobster rolls from Red’s Eats – I’ve waited in that line before.  They’re good…but I never found them to be better than lots of other lobster rolls.  Bear in mind that I’m not an “aficionado” about lobster rolls – they are so simple (I think that’s part of their popularity – fresh and simple), it’s hard to get too excited about a particular lobster roll.  Sprague’s is right across the street.  Sprague’s always has parking.  You’re rarely going to wait more than 30 minutes for your lobster roll.  The lobster, like Red’s, is freshly steamed.  You get about the same amount of lobster meat; and you pay slightly less at Sprague’s.  So, we turned left into Sprague’s, ordered our lobster rolls, grabbed a picnic table, and watched the line at Red’s as it moved at glacial speed.  The rolls were great.  As good as Boothbay Lobster Wharf?  For me, no, but pretty darn close.  I like the slightly mayo-ier (is that a word?) version at Boothbay.

But it was nice sunny day; the lobster roll and lemonade were great, and a nice finish to the weekend.  We pulled on to Rt. 1 to head to the airport and said goodbye to Wiscasset.  Overall, a fantastic weekend in an awesome location with friends.  Thanks to Ron and Joe for sharing the weekend with me, and for not letting me spend a dime during the weekend.  For the rest of you – I encourage you to visit Midcoast Maine and explore this wonderful region.  There are lots of things to do, but as I’ve found, it’s a bit like going back in time to a simpler time, where families can relax and enjoy a simple ice cream on a sunny Saturday.

Lemons and the Urban Dilettante

And now for something completely different!  I am a huge Monty Python fan, having watched the original shows in England when I was a boy.  I could see the Pythons using this title in one of their sketches (Eric Idle sitting comfortably in an interview chair – “Our guest tonight – Steve Doyon to discuss his book of post-modernist poetry, Lemons and the Urban Dilletante”).  Yes, I admit it – I am completely a dilettante.  What is a dilettante, some of you may be asking (and, what the hell does it have to do with lemons!) – to quote the OED, a dilettante is “A person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge”.  As self-deprecating as I am, that’s a bit harsh.  I prefer to define it as a dabbler – someone who approaches a field of interest from a purely amateur perspective.

I think I’ve been somewhat of a dilettante my entire life – from as long as I can remember, I’ve always had an intense curiosity about a wide variety of subjects, and for many of these, it wasn’t enough for me to just read about them – I was always interested in trying things.  Whether it was dabbling in chemistry (multiple chemistry sets), electronics (building my own burglar alarm), or a myriad of other passing interests that used to drive my parents nuts.  This continued into adulthood, always with the same pattern – (a) something catches my interest; (b) I read everything I can find on the subject; (c) I start planning my hands-on approach; (d) I complete the initial experiment; (e) after a brief moment of reveling in my (often dubious) accomplishment, I move on to the next passing interest.  One year it was a garden.  My grandfather used to have the most beautiful vegetable garden at his home in Caribou.  It was quite large (too large for him and my grandmother), and he grew an astounding variety of vegetables – several varieties of carrots, potatoes, cabbages, beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, lettuces, spinach, onions, cucumbers, peas, beets, radishes, turnips – the list was endless.  He used to have a local farmer plow his garden for him, and he was so meticulous – keeping notes on the weather and what he planted; rotating crops; staggering his plantings so he had vegetables all season long.  He was most definitely not a dilettante.  My approach, inspired by my grandfather, was, unfortunately, a textbook case in dilettantism.  First the excitement, generated by moving to a townhouse that had a real backyard (in Florida) – finally, a fertile field in which to replicate my grandfathers beloved garden!  Then the intense reading – at that time, with no internet, this involved multiple trips to the local bookstores, buying many books on backyard gardening, and reading late into the night.  This period, for the dilettante, is probably the best part – dreaming about what you could accomplish with your own hands!  I ambitiously measure off a plot, covering half of my backyard.  The backyard had not been maintained in some time – so there were several days with weed whackers and a lawn mower to tame the wildness.  Hard work is often the death of nascent dilettante ventures.  In this case, I persevered.  Next step was preparing the soil.  After a half-hearted attempt using a hoe and shovel, I quickly realized that power tools were going to be necessary.  Renting a roto-tiller turned out to be quite easy…using one was a different story.  These machines must be featured in one of Dante’s circles – they are loud, they are smelly, and they alternate from not moving at all, to jerking your arms from their sockets – entirely exhausting.  I quickly reset my expectations and reduced the size of the garden by half.  Unfortunately, I didn’t reset my ambitions with respect to the amount and variety of what I had anticipated to plant – resulting in an overcrowded garden, and one that produced barely a few servings of each item I had planted.  What followed was a frustrating few months of tending the garden – the horrible sandy soil of Florida proved great at growing weeds, and terrible at growing robust vegetables.  At some point I just gave up trying to control the weeds, and let the garden go.  Finally, I began to harvest and enjoy the fruits of my labor!  The magic quickly wore off – while there is some pleasure in consuming vegetables that you grew yourself, you realize that it’s far easier, and cheaper, to buy better vegetables produced by professionals, from your local farmers market.  That was my last attempt at large scale gardening (however there were many other attempts at more specific approaches – herbs; tomatoes one year; etc.) – like most dilettantes, I ticked the box and moved on to the next thing.

Now on to lemons.  Who doesn’t love lemons?  Turns out that lemons have a relatively short history in terms of their use in food.  The origins of lemons are a bit murky, but they appear to have originated somewhere in northeastern India (probably as a cross between a citron and a bitter orange) around 2500 years ago.  Despite being cultivated, however, their use was primarily ornamental.  Gradually spread through the Middle East, northern Africa, and Europe by Arab traders, it wasn’t until the mid-15th century, in Genoa, that lemons began to be widely used as a culinary ingredient.  I found this part of their history to be interesting, and yet odd.  Here you have a fruit that has so many uses in cooking, both as a flavoring, and more importantly, to introduce acid (which provides preservation qualities as well, something very important in those days), yet, it took almost 2000 years after their introduction before they began to be widely used in cooking.  In any case, once they began to be used in cooking, their usage quickly spread, especially throughout the Mediterranean.  We have Christopher Columbus to thank for bringing lemons to the New World – he brought lemon seeds to Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and cultivation rapidly spread throughout the warm climates of South and Central America, as well as parts of North America.  Now lemons are an integral part of so many different cuisines – Italian, Greek, Moroccan, Caribbean Latin, Spanish, etc.

OK, lemons are great – so what?  What do lemons have to do with this story.  Well, first – Paula and I definitely have a lemon-centric palate.  There are always lemons in our refrigerator, and almost always a cut lemon on our table at dinner – we squeeze it on our meats, pasta, etc. – we love tartness in our food, and have found it to be a great flavor enhancer.  For us, lemons are an essential part of our kitchen.  And it turns out that there are many different things you can do with lemons in the pantry.  Over the course of the last 5 years, my kitchen ADHD tendencies have collided with my love of lemons, and their flavor profile -the citrus flavor; the brightness; the acidity.  And so, readers, I get to the subject matter here – three ways to enjoy lemons that anyone can prepare in their kitchen.


Every heard of a granita?  Many people haven’t, but it’s essentially the poor man’s sorbet.  That may be short-changing granita a bit – but it’s a frozen dessert (or palate cleanser) that is generally made with no special equipment other than a freezer.  Sugar, water, and flavorings, combined, partially frozen, then scraped or agitated over time to produce a granular, crystalline, refreshing dessert.  It’s not (usually) as smooth as sorbet, but it’s more intense and smooth than Italian ice.  While traditionally made with citrus fruit, it can be made with a variety of flavorings – including almonds, coffee, and chocolate.  Granita seems to have originated in Sicily, the land of my wife’s ancestors.  One hot day, I happened to channel surf across a program on traditional Sicilian lemon granita.  The video pulled me in – crystal clear blue Mediterranean waters, Sicilian landscapes of lemon and olive trees – a journey from harvesting the lemons, to making the granita, and then enjoying on a fabulous terrace overlooking the water.  It was the middle of July in NYC, and I had to have some granita.  And not just any granita – the program was specific that the best granita is made with Sicilian lemons – but those that couldn’t get Sicilian lemons could substitute Meyer lemons.  The process looked easy – make a simple syrup, add lemon zest and lemon juice, let it infuse and cool; put in the freezer, let it partially freeze, then scrape the frozen juice with the tines of a fork, back in the freezer, more scraping – until all the liquid has been converted into a granular, frozen treat.  But…where to get the lemons.  I quickly found out that it was impossible to get real Sicilian lemons in NYC – so on to the close substitute, Meyer lemons.  Meyer lemons are generally grown in California – they have a slightly less acidic flavor than regular lemons, and the fruit is rounder.  I was convinced that the only way to make anything close to true Sicilian granita was to procure Meyer lemons.  The search began…we spent several weeks, rushing all over the city on my search for Meyer lemons.  Paula was initially game for the hunt, but after little early success, my obsession with finding Meyer lemons grew, and Paula found herself caught up in my irrational pursuit.   Every place I went to (small gourmet shops; ethnic grocery stores; etc.) hadn’t even heard of Meyer lemons, let alone stock them! Finally, I found them – Eataly, the Mario Batali gourmet supermarket/food emporium, received a shipment.  At 3 times the price of regular lemons, they weren’t cheap.  But I convinced myself it was a small price to pay for authentic (or nearly so) Sicilian granita.  I found a recipe and made my granita.  It was really good – refreshing, perfect for our hot and humid NYC summers.  The Meyer lemons, of course, were the key ingredient…without them, what would you have?  Not authentic granita, but just an imitation.  A month later I found that Eataly didn’t have any more Meyer lemons, so, desperate for my granita, I bought some regular lemons.  I made the ersatz “Sicilian” granita and decided not to tell Paula about my desperate substitution.  Her response – and I reluctantly agreed with her – the granita tasted great…she didn’t notice any difference.  All those weeks obsessing over finding Meyer lemons, only to discover that – for something like granita, anyway – we really couldn’t tell the difference.  In any case, we made granita many times over that summer – lemon granita; watermelon granita; even a basil lime granita.  They were all great – but like all my dilletante pursuits, I moved on to the next thing and haven’t made granita since.  Here’s a recipe for Sicilian Granita – feel free to use regular lemons – tell everyone you used imported Sicilian lemons, they’ll never know the difference!

  • 2 cups water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • Juice from 7-8 lemons (almost a cup and a half), plus zest from 3 of the lemons

Stir the water and sugar in a pan over medium high heat.  Bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar, then turn off the heat.  Let the syrup cool for 10 minutes, then add the lemon juice and lemon zest, stirring to combine.  Allow it to come to room temperature.

Pour the mixture (some people strain it, but I like the little bits of pulp and zest in my granita) into a glass or metal pan or baking dish (a 9 x 13 works great – you want it to spread reasonably thin) and put it in the freezer.  Allow it to freeze for 1 hour, then take it out and scrape it with a fork.  Put it back in the freezer for 2 more hours, scraping it every 30 minutes.  You can serve this with mint leaves, and it will keep in a granular state for a week if kept frozen and covered.  In Sicily, it is traditionally eaten at breakfast with a brioche!


You ever been to an Italian restaurant that offered you a small glass of limoncello after your meal?  It’s not extremely common in the U.S. to find this little courtesy, but travel almost anywhere in southern Italy, and more often than not you’ll be offered an ice-cold glass of (typically) house made limoncello.  Limoncello is a (usually) sweet, (usually) strong liqueur made from lemons.  It can pack quite a wallop, which is why it’s traditionally served in a small glass (often a shot glass).  Especially in hot climates, it’s a nice cool refreshing way to end a meal.  Paula and I love to visit Italy, and we’ve had some great limoncello over the years.  A few years ago, I got obsessed with learning how to make limoncello.  Unlike granita, making limoncello is not a quick process – it takes several months (or more), depending on your recipe.  The process can be a bit time consuming, but it’s not that difficult, and you don’t need specialized equipment.  Essentially limoncello is a combination of lemon infused alcohol with a simple syrup.  Rather than give you a single recipe for limoncello, I’m going to outline the general methodology, along with my tips.  I have found that there is no one ‘right’ way to make limoncello – and you can tailor it to your particular tastes.  Paula and I don’t like extremely sweet things – so I generally use a lower ratio of sugar to water in my simple syrup.  In addition, we don’t want it too strong, so I blend a little more syrup to alcohol to make a slightly less alcoholic ratio than many recipes I’ve found.  Finally, we both like a little more tartness – so I add back in some lemon juice to my mixture, to give it a bit of acid.  If you are one of those people (Jim – I know you are out there!) who absolutely has to have a recipe, this site (Limoncelloquest) has a good basic recipe.   Limoncello can be made with almost any citrus fruit – lemons, oranges, mandarins, grapefruit.  There is even a chocolate version (I’m not a big fan, and I’m not sure how it’s made – but I’ve seen it in Italy).  Now, I will warn you that making limoncello (and especially, experimenting with limoncello) will require some math.  It’s important to get the proper ratios for both the simple syrup (sugar to water ratio) and the alcohol content of the lemon infusion.  Thankfully, this guy has put together a couple of handy limoncello calculators for you (yes, they exist).

So, let’s start with ingredients.  Pretty simple – alcohol, sugar, water, citrus zest, citrus juice.  First the alcohol.  In Italy, you would use a basic grain alcohol – what is generally sold in the U.S. is under the brand Everclear.  It’s typically sold at 150 or 190 proof.  The problem is that it isn’t sold in every state – for example, New York, where I live.  You’re going to dilute it in any case, but you need at least 120 proof alcohol to properly extract the lemon flavor from the zest.  Because I can’t get Everclear, I use Vodka – not an expensive brand – you really don’t want any other flavor, just cheap alcohol that is at least 120 proof.  To get the right alcohol content of my finished product without overdiluting it, I like to start with 120 proof.  I want to end up with about 26% alcohol (52 proof) – but most limoncello recipes give you a product that is more alcoholic – around 60 proof.  That’s where the limoncello calculator comes in handy – you punch in the amount of alcohol you are using; the alcohol content of the alcohol; and the alcohol content that you are looking for in your limoncello, and it will spit out the amount of simple syrup needed.  So, I end up buying a couple of different vodkas (one at 151 proof, one at 80 proof) and blend it down to 120 proof (yes, you need math, but it’s a rather simple ratio to calculate).  Be warned – too much below 52 proof, and your limoncello will freeze (or get slushy) in the freezer.

Next the lemons.  You need Meyer lemons…no, not really.  Any lemons will work but avoid any lemons that have been waxed.  Since I’m using the zest, I generally spring for the organic lemons.  So how many?  Well, that’s going to vary widely by the recipe.  It’s anywhere from 12 – 20 lemons for every 1.5 L of 120 proof alcohol.  I tend to use more because I like a bit more intense flavor.  This is something that you’ll need to experiment with.  You need to zest all these lemons – and for that you’ll want a large microplane zester.  Be careful not to bite too deeply when you are zesting – you don’t want any of the white part of the peel, otherwise you’ll get bitter limoncello – not good.  Zesting this many lemons will take you some time, so be prepared.  You’ll also want to think of another use for all those lemons – you’ll only be using the zest at this stage, and since you won’t need the juice for several months, you won’t be using these zestless lemons in your limoncello.  I usually use these leftover lemons to make granita, or lemonade.

Once you have the 120 proof blended alcohol, and the zest, you combine them in one or two large, glass jars with a screw top.  They really need to be glass.  This zest/alcohol mixture is going to sit for 2 months.  Yes, that’s right – 2 months.  Some people say you need 3-4 months for this extraction period, but I’ve found that after about 2 months, the additional extraction of the lemon oils/essence is so small it’s not worth the additional time.  These can sit on your countertop at room temperature.  You’ll want to shake up the jars every day or two as the zest will settle to the bottom.  The lemon essence will slowly leach from the zest into the alcohol, and you’ll see the transformation over time – the alcohol turning yellow, the zest turning pale/white.

So, you’ve waited 2 months – now comes filtering – the messiest, most time-consuming part of the process.  This is an important step – you really need to get all that zest out, along with other fine particles.  I start with scooping out the zest with a large slotted spoon, making sure to squeeze it over the jar.  Discard the spent zest – it will be dry and white by this point.  Next, I use cheesecloth – lining a colander with cheesecloth suspended over a large bowl, I pour the alcohol mixture through the cheesecloth (I typically have 3-4 layers of cheesecloth.  I do two passes with the cheesecloth.  Finally, I use coffee filters – regular coffee filters.  For this I use a kitchen strainer with a regular coffee filter inside.  Don’t be tempted to use your Mr. Coffee pot – you will pick up some stale coffee flavors and ruin your limoncello.  The coffee filters are the hardest part – you will want to do two passes, changing coffee filters in between.  It will be slow going – the coffee filters will drain quite slowly.  Sometimes they will bind up and you have to change the filter more than once.  It’s a necessary task.  You will end up with an extremely clear, yellow liquid.  If you see anything floating – back to the filtration step.

The rest is easy.  You measure how much lemon infused liquid you now have (because you will lose alcohol through the process).  Using the limoncello calculator, you’ll calculate how much simple syrup you’ll need.  Simple syrup is easy – combine sugar and water (again, this ratio will depend on how sweet you want it – if you like sweeter limoncello, go with 1-part sugar to 1.5 parts water…if you like it less sweet, like us, then use 1-part sugar to 2 parts water), bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar, then allow to cool to room temperature.  Once you have your simple syrup, you just combine the simple syrup with the lemon infused alcohol in the amounts from your limoncello calculator, and voila…limoncello.  You’ll notice the mixture getting going from very clear to slightly opaque (almost milky) – when that happens, you’ll know you’ve done it right.  The other thing I do is to replace a little bit of the simple syrup quantity with filtered lemon juice (perhaps 10% of the simple syrup – so if you have need 5 cups of simple syrup, use 4.5 cups of simple syrup and 0.5 cups lemon juice) to give it a little tartness.

Now you just bottle it up.  We like to use small swing top bottles and give them out as gifts.  Store the limoncello in the freezer – anything above 52 proof should stay liquid in the freezer.

So that’s all there is to it.  By the way, after trying this with many different citrus fruits, I found that grapefruit produces the best limoncello (well, technically it’s called pompelmocello if you use grapefruit).

Preserved Lemons

Last Easter weekend, we were invited to a friend’s house in Westchester for the weekend.  His girlfriend had spent some time in Morocco and made us a fantastic Moroccan dinner that night.  One of the ingredients was preserved lemon – in this case it was present in a delicious chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemons.  We talked about our love of lemons, and how versatile preserved lemons are – and she told us how easy it was to make preserved lemons at home.  We returned to the city, and I had a new mission – to make preserved lemons!  Preserved lemons are nothing more than salt cured lemons.  Again, these aren’t going to be quick, like the granita.  They take a minimum of 1 month, and unlike the limoncello, they do improve with age – so the longer they ferment, the better.  I’m going to make this one quick, and once again not provide a recipe.  You can google preserved lemon recipes and you’ll get hundreds!  They are all basically the same (I’ll outline the process here but use a recipe to get the correct amount of salt).  You’ll take lemons, and cut them in quarters or fifths, not quite cutting all the way through (so they open up, a little like a flower).  You will open up the lemons slightly, and pack salt between the attached wedges, as well as rub the outsides of the lemons.  Let these sit in the refrigerator overnight (disclaimer – you’ll note that I do all the steps for the preserved lemons in the refrigerator – many recipes will tell you this isn’t necessary, that you can ferment and store the lemons at room temp – but out of an abundance of caution, I use the fridge).  The next day they will have exuded a lot of juice.  Pack them in sterilized canning jars and pour the juice over them – they should be covered in juice, but if not, add additional juice to make sure they are covered.  Store them in the fridge for a month (or longer), giving the jar a shake every couple of days or so.  To use, take out a lemon – pull off one of the wedges – discard the pulp (you only use the peel) and give it a good rinse.  There are tons of uses for these – chop them up, toss them in some pasta with good olive oil, and you have a meal.  Use them in stews.  They will give a salty, tart, intense lemony flavor to your food.  They keep forever – I suspect you’ll end up using them up before they go bad.

So, there you have it.  A little peek into the mind of the urban dilletante.  I know I frustrate Paula sometimes with all my little pursuits – when I get on a subject, I tend to get obsessed with it, but once completed, I’m on to the next thing.  But I have an intense curiosity about the world, and I get really excited about trying new things; especially things that I can create myself.  So, the next time you see somebody making something – whether it’s food; or a craft; or art; or whatever – and you tell yourself “Oh, I wish I could do that” – don’t wish…try it.  What’s the worst that could happen?!!

Catalunya – Beyond Barcelona

It’s a shame that generally the only thing people know about Catalunya (or Catalonia in English) is Barcelona (and perhaps the Catalan fight for independence from Spain).  Yet there is much more to Catalunya than Barcelona.  Today I want to introduce you to the beautiful region known at the Costa Brava – roughly translated as Wild Coast.  The Costa Brava is a gorgeous area north of Barcelona, very accessible, and full of history.  We love Barcelona, and strongly encourage a visit – but if you have more time, and want to explore beyond Barcelona, the Costa Brava should be top of your list!  And for my British friends out there – this article is focused on the area outside of Tossa del Mar, Lloret del Mar – while you can have a perfectly good holiday in those areas, I’m talking about the places where you won’t find a full English breakfast!

“I was at the top of a rugged cliff, which tumbles to the sea below in a rush of rocks passing by green agaves and golden wild fennel. To the south-west, the placid curve of the beaches of Blanes and Sabanell, as far as Tordera Point, separated by a rocky islet (Sa Palomera) which an isthmus has joined to the land, fixing one’s gaze and understanding, exultant at the spectacle of the Costa Brava”

Ferran Agulló from a 1908 Article in La Veu de Catalunya

The Catalan poet Ferran Agulló was said to have christened this area of Catalunya, the Costa Brava, in an article from 1908 promoting the region’s wild beauty.  It stretches from the north, where it borders France in the Eastern Pyrenees, down along the coast to Blanes, and inland to the mountainous area north of Girona.  This is a region steeped in historical significance.  Inhabited since the middle Paleolithic (approximately 200,000 years ago), the region has seen numerous waves of occupation given its unique location.  In pre-Roman times, the area was the northernmost region populated by the Iberians.  The area was then invaded by the Carthaginians, who were subsequently defeated by the Romans.  After the fall of the Roman empire, the area saw various invasions and rule by Visigoths, Muslims, and the Frankish empire.  It was around this time (middle ages, 1100) that the first identity as Catalunya began.  The area was an important part of the Kingdom of Aragon in the middle ages, and evidence of this history is visible in the many well preserved medieval villages in this region – including Pals, Peratallada, Foixà, Monells, and La Bisbal d’Empordà.

Returning to the present, this story begins with a book – 1001 Escapes to Experience Before You Die.  Usually I don’t like these bucket-list type books – it makes me think too much of my own mortality – but I discovered this one day while googling around for unique places to visit in Spain and Italy.  This sentence hooked me “At the end of a narrow road in an idyllic bay…”.    Further googling revealed a picture from an article in a Spanish magazine called “Solos en una cala”– water so crystal clear that boats appear to be floating in midair.  I wanted inI added it to my list of places to someday visit (but probably not – that was back when “someday” meant “probably never”).  Flash forward to a few years ago (haha!).  Paula and I had been dreaming about the potential to buy a small house in Italy or Spain where we could live for part of the year in our “retirement”.  Our wish list was: smaller village; close access to larger town with health care; near the sea; away from heavy tourist zones; reasonably priced area; strong local culture of food and wine; reasonable access to airport (2-3 hours).  The Costa Brava area ticked all our boxes – and it had the advantage of being Spanish speaking (well…partially Spanish speaking as Catalan is the first language).  I had started to poke around real estate listings when I came across Rita Fryer, a US expat who had been living in Spain for more than 25 years, working as a buyer’s agent specializing in Costa Brava real estate.  Rita (who now focuses on Barcelona www.barcelonaluxuryrentals.com) was very pleasant and forthcoming with lots of information about the area.  As she had an apartment in NYC and was visiting there soon, we arranged for Rita to have dinner with us at our apartment.  We had a great time learning a bit about Rita’s life in Spain (although American, she was, for all practical purposes, a Brit, as she had been married for many years to a British national).  We asked her for suggestions on where to stay if we came over for an exploration visit, and without hesitation she said “Sa Rascassa”.   Wait a minute – wasn’t that the place in 1001 Escapes to Experience Before You Die?  It was…the very same.  Now we had to go – fate was pushing us along.  A plan soon came together for our summer trip.

Based on advice from Rita, we decided to use the area around Begur as a base of operations.  Begur is a beautiful little town very close to the coast, featuring a prominent, crumbling 11th century medieval castle built on the highest hill in the area.  It has an interesting history, and it became prosperous this century from Begurians returning from Cuba.  See, Cuba was a Spanish colony in the 19th century, and many people from Begur had immigrated to Cuba to seek their fortune in the Americas.  Some made their fortunes in sugar and rum in Cuba, and some of these wealthy folks became a bit homesick.  Many returned to Begur, building large homes with their new-found wealth from Havana.  You’ll still see architectural styles in Begur from Cuba, and every year they still have a Cuban festival in Begur to celebrate the connection. As an aside, Facundo Bacardi was another one of these Spanish immigrants to Cuba, finding his fortune in the rum empire he founded.  Bacardi was from Sitges, also in Catalunya, but a little further south down the coast.  I’ll have another post one day that talks about Sitges – it’s another great little town to visit.

So, with Begur decided as our base, we arranged the rest of the details of our trip.  If you decide to visit this area as we did (to explore), you will absolutely need a car.  While there are trains up the coast, and some buses, this is a relatively rural area that will require a car to see it efficiently.  Our plan was to fly to Barcelona; pick up a rental car at the airport; head up to the Costa Brava for 4-5 days; then return to Barcelona for a few days before coming home.  For those that haven’t driven in Spain, you’ll find it very easy.  The highway system is well maintained; signage is clearly marked; and, other than some of the smaller villages, the roads are generally wider than those found in some of the other European countries (like England).  That said, you will want to avoid, if you can, trying to rent a large car or SUV – parking spaces really cater to smaller vehicles; gas is relatively expensive; and in some of the smaller villages, you will find difficulty navigating.  If you can’t drive a stick shift, make sure you specify an automatic – unless you specify, you are likely to get a standard (this happened to me on my first trip to Argentina – and they had no automatics…I drove a stick for the first time in 25 years, while navigating the crazy traffic of Buenos Aires…Paula had fun!).  We picked up the car and headed north on the highway.  As you leave the greater Barcelona area, the Catalan countryside unfolds before you.  The main highway towards Girona travels along a valley, with a mountainous area to the west, and the rocky promontories of the coast to the east.  We could just as easily have established our base in Girona – it’s a medium sized city with a tremendous amount of history, and a beautiful old section.  However, we were looking for a quieter base of operations – and the beautiful little gem of Sa Rascassa beckoned.

Cala d’Aiguafreda is a stunning cove, situated, as that original article mentioned, at the end of an “idyllic road”.  As you leave the heights of Begur, you wind your way down along switchback roads, through a pine forest, with glimpses of stunning coastal vistas each time your break through the trees.  The air here reminds me of Maine – fresh pine and the faint scent of the sea.  The water is absolutely crystal clear, and you can see why this is a favourite area for scuba divers and snorkelers.  We found our way to the end of the road – literally – which terminates in a public parking lot providing access to the water.  This was also the parking lot of Sa Rascassa, our home for the next 5 days.  Sa Rascassa started life in 1916, built as a private home when Aiguafreda was a private cove.  Over the years it became a holiday camp, and then a diving center.  It was acquired by Oscar Gorriz, and his wife Merche, in 2002.  Oscar had owned an advertising agency in Barcelona but was looking for a different pace of life when he came across the house.  His vision was to convert the existing structure into a small restaurant and offer a few rooms above the restaurant.  The restaurant setting, especially at night, is truly magical, with both indoor and outdoor seating.  The outdoor tables are situated under a number of old trees, with fairy lights twinkling.  You are close enough to the water to hear the gentle lapping of waves and smell the salt air.  Upstairs are 5 rooms – simple, clean, and inviting.  Those looking for lavish luxury won’t find it here – but if you’re looking for a quiet, tranquil, hidden cove setting – this is the place.  We were quickly checked in at the restaurant/office below and directed to head up the outside stairs to the level above where we would find our rooms.  The rooms sit directly above the restaurant and are arranged facing a private gravel patio with tables and umbrellas.  From this level there is a gorgeous view of Aiguafreda, along with a private path to the cove steps below.  We found our room, which had a chalkboard sign out front indicating “Paula y Steve” – a wonderful touch that made us feel right at home.  We quickly unpacked and headed down the path to visit Aiguafreda.

It was a hot August day, and so we threw on our swimsuits.  The cove has a small “beach bar” (there really isn’t a beach as it’s a rocky cove, typical of the Mediterranean), also operated by Oscar, where you can get cold draft beer and a variety of small bites.  There is a public access on the other side of the bar, as well as a small diving center.  When we arrived, there were several people enjoying a beer in the rustic setting, and several others just returning from a dive trip.  The crystal-clear water sparkled in the sun, and there were a few people snorkeling in the tiny cove.  Several boats bobbed just offshore.  Paula approached the water and dipped her toe – I could tell by her reaction that there wouldn’t be any swimming here for Paula…too cold!  Like Maine, the waters here are frigid – obviously your first clue is in the name – Aiguafreda.  Paula set her towel on a flat rock and enjoyed the sun.  I was determined to get in that water.  Rather than acclimate with slow torture, I jumped in…Yikes!  As I caught my breath from the shock of the water, I realized Paula had made the right decision.  But after my initial convulsions, the contrast between the hot August sun and the water was enjoyable, and we spent a lazy afternoon in the cove, followed by a long nap in our room.

As beautiful as Sa Rascassa was during the day, it really came alive at night.  The restaurant doesn’t open until 8:30pm, very typical of Catalunya (and Argentina!).  We were lucky we had booked with Oscar prior to our arrival – the restaurant is very popular and indeed was fully booked the first night of our stay.  Choosing to eat outside under those magical lights, we had a cold glass of Cava (sparkling white wine like Prosecco or Champagne) from the region and perused the menu.  The menu was wide-ranging but focused primarily on the fresh seafood from the area.  There were several specials that featured whatever the chef happened to purchase that day from the fisherman in the area.  This is the type of food we like best – fresh, local, and simply prepared.  Catalunya is known for its high standard of food, particularly in Girona where there are over 12 restaurants which have earned a Michelin star.  Girona became the poster child for the avant-garde gastronomic movement, and El Cellar de Can Roca, a 3-star Michelin restaurant, has variously been named the best restaurant in the world.  But that’s not the type of restaurant that Paula and I enjoy the most – restaurants that take a year or more to get a reservation, and that feature lengthy tasting menus.  We much prefer the simple, but sophisticated approach like at Sa Rascassa, which puts the freshness of the local seafood, and produce, front and center.  We started with Tallarinas, extremely tiny clams (I believe they are a variety of coquinas) sautéed quickly in olive oil and white wine – they were amazing.  We worked our way through some additional shellfish (including Navajas, sweet razor clams also prepared simply with garlic and olive oil) before sharing a locally caught grilled Dorada.  The wine list features wines from the Catalonia region, which are excellent.  We shared an Emporda red blend (even though we had seafood, we generally prefer red wine at dinner).  This was the first of our 4 nights having dinner at Sa Rascassa, each as wonderful as the first.  We found out that Rascassa is the Catalan word for the scorpionfish, which is caught locally and, on the menu, when available.  One night we strayed from seafood and were tempted by a Chuleton de Buey, a thick, bone-in Ribeye that we shared.  I took a look at the sizzling hunk of meat they brought to our table, and all I could think was “You Magnificent Bastard” (a gratuitous quote from the movie Patton, for my Chicago friends). Grilled to perfection, it capped off our amazing week at Sa Rascassa.

During our weeks stay, we explored the region.  The houses near the coast, especially those situated on terraced plots high above the sea, were typical of the Spanish Mediterranean architecture, with red tiled roofs, inviting swimming pools, and wide vistas of the sea.  Further inland you’ll find stone farmhouses, called Masias.  These traditional houses date as far back as the 16th century, and unrestored Masias are becoming quite rare, as rich Barcelonans have snapped these up over the years, converting them to modern homes and villas.  The countryside is dotted with small villages, interspersed with little estates surrounding these Masias.  We spent a few days driving around, dreaming about what life might be like if we were fortunate to find one that suited us.  There were several around the tiny village of Ullastret, which dates to the pre-Roman Iberian civilization in the 4thcentury BC.  Here you will find excavated ruins from that era, along with a museum.  One of the most interesting towns we visited was Pals, only 15 minutes from Begur.  Pals is a medieval town, situated around a Romanesque clock tower built in the 11th century.  The town has a restored gothic quarter, with narrow cobblestone streets and arched doorways and passages.   As with many of these villages, there is parking outside of the village, as the streets are too narrow and historic for traffic.  We walked around the town and toured the church at the top of the village.  Nearby is another medieval village called Peratallada – which has a moat still partially encircling this historic town.  Dating back to the 13th century, parts of the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves were filmed here because of its atmospheric surroundings.  Finding several restaurants in the village, we had failed to book for lunch – but were able to find a table at a restaurant with the intriguing name Les Coques del Psss (it’s since closed and re-opened as Cala Nena).  We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon having lunch and people watching.

Venturing further north one day, we took a drive to the coastal town of Cadaques, only 33 km from the French border.  Cadaques, while frequently described as a sleepy little coastal village, was visited by, and home to, some of the most important artists of the 20th century – Salvador Dalí (who lived nearby in Port Lligat), René Magritte, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso all spent time here.  The drive to Cadaques is notorious – a nausea inducing journey of switchbacks, perilous cliffs, and a distinct lack of guardrails.  By the time we reached Cadaques, we both needed a little calm (I think it will remain Paula’s last visit to Cadaques unless we can go by boat!).  Fortunately, the town has a picturesque malecon (seafront esplanade), and we enjoyed a walk, finding a nice restaurant on the water.  Dali is perhaps most known for his time in Cadaques – and you’ll see the town and its surroundings featured in many Dali paintings from his pre-surreal period.  The Iglesias de Santa Maria is a 16th century church that dominates a hilltop overlooking the bay.  We had some fantastic grilled sardines in Cadaques – fresh from the Mediterranean, along with Pescaditos Fritos – tiny fried fish that are eaten whole up and down the coast of Catalunya.  There are numerous galleries and shops for fun browsing in the small town, but it was crowded the day we went, and the treacherous drive back to Begur spurred us to leave a little early.  Next time we’ll take the seaside walk to visit Port Lligat, where Dali owned a house.

Another day we drove slightly south to visit Llafranc and Calella de Pallafrugell, two joined coastal communities with real sand beaches.  The drive down from Begur was spectacular, and we stopped several times to take pictures and take in the views.  Once again, we wiled away an afternoon sipping sangria at one of the many restaurants along the beach and eating fresh seafood.  Look at these red prawns, one of the specialties in this area – we couldn’t get enough of them.  We also visited another tiny village near Aiguafreda, called Sa Tuna.  While we drove to this beautiful little town, we could have walked from Sa Rascassa – there is a coastal path that connects both communities.  We enjoyed the view at Sa Tuna, but liked the peace and tranquility at Aiguafreda a bit more – Sa Tuna had a significant amount of development in the form of terraced villas overlooking the village, and the parking was quite difficult.

All too quickly, it was time to say goodbye to Sa Rascassa and the Costa Brava.  We packed up, had our last breakfast at the hotel (included with the room, with wonderful fresh fruit and yogurt), and started on the 2-hour drive back to Barcelona.  It was a lot of fun to explore this area – one that seems to be quite overlooked by Americans (not as much by my British friends, but many choose the more crowded resort towns to the south).  While part of the impetus to visit this area was to scout for potential retirement homes, we ultimately decided that owning a home in Europe that we would only use for part of the year was probably not the best plan for us, and as I described in the first post to this blog, fate ultimately brought us to our home in Maine.  While not the same climate as the Costa Brava, the similarities are many – rocky coastline, pine forests, a focus on fresh local seafood, tiny fishing villages, and yes, very cold water!  However, we will definitely return to the Costa Brava for more exploration, and in particular, to stay at Sa Rascassa.  If you’ve thought about someday visiting Spain, by all means, visit Barcelona (one of our favourite cities) – but do yourself a favour and venture a bit further north of Barcelona – you’ll be rewarded with a more authentic experience in Catalunya.


Obviously, our highest recommendation is for Sa Rascassa, both for food and to stay.  With only 5 rooms, this place books up quickly – but it really should be on your list of places to go.  If you can’t get in at Sa Rascassa, another alternative recommended by Rita Fryer is the Hotel Aigua Blava, in nearby Fornells.  Speaking of Rita, while we’ve lost touch with her somewhat, I see she has a business in Barcelona focused on luxury rentals.  Knowing Rita, she probably has places to rent in the Costa Brava as well, so definitely seek her out – she’s a nice person and was very helpful to us.  As for the rest – just go and explore – there are wineries; Roman ruins; medieval castles; museums; galleries all over the region.  It’s very accessible and almost impossible to get lost – but go ahead and try anyway, you’ll have fun.  To quote a recent HGTV show we keep seeing “Just get up and do it!”.

Guitars – The Artistry of Craft

Perfectly mitered purflings…French Polish…book-matched sets….scalloped bracing – are you excited?  Maybe not yet, but today I want to share a little bit about one of my great loves – guitars (and for this post, I’ll focus primarily on acoustic guitars).  Not the music of guitars (which I also love and could write an entire post solely on that); not the playing of guitars (I do play my guitars, but I’m a mediocre player at best); but the instruments themselves.  I apologize in advance – this is a long post, and in the future, I may consider splitting up posts like these into several installments.  I hope you find it enjoyable and informative, especially for those that admire guitars but don’t know that much about how they are crafted.

People who make guitars are called luthiers, and if you asked a gathering of luthiers (yes, there are such things!) whether they consider themselves artists, I think the clear majority would say “no”, that they are craftsman.  But I would suggest that surely there is artistry in their craft – hence the title of this blog post.  I’m not sure this applies to all luthiers, or all guitars – but certainly I find myself admiring some guitars as I would a work of art.  Some of my friends would argue that that only highlights my lack of understanding of what art is – and I’d probably agree with that.  But the great Brahms once said “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”  And there are aesthetic choices that go way beyond the production of sound or tone when making a guitar.  For me, the way that these choices integrate into the instrument can produce beauty that is completely independent of how the guitar sounds.  Those who are fans of Robert Pirsig’s great book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” will understand what I mean.  Of course, there are guitar players out there that cringe at folks like me – they see guitars as purely instruments used to convey their own art – their music – and don’t really care, necessarily, how the guitar looks.  But I do play my guitars (only for myself, and not very well) – its just that I have a further interest and love in their aesthetic aspects.  I like their shape (clearly inspired by women); I like the way they combine materials (wood; steel; bone; shell); I like the way they smell (certain types of wood have distinctive fragrances even on a finished guitar); I like the way they feel and respond when you play them (whoa, as I wrote this it started to seem a little…erotic – I’m not going there, but others have written about this as well).  And once I learned a little more about the crafting of guitars, I came to appreciate them even more – the extreme attention to detail in constructing a well-made guitar is amazing.

The various parts of a guitar make up the form that contributes to the function – producing sound through plucking strings.  The top of the guitar is the soundboard that vibrates sympathetically from the energy of the strings and increases the projection of sound.  The back and sides form the body of the guitar, along with the soundboard.  The soundhole provides another avenue for sound waves to project from the guitar.  The neck provides a structural component that, along with the bridge and headstock, contain the tremendous pressures imposed by the strings.  The fretboard allows for changing the pitch of individual strings.  The nut guides the strings to their end points on the tuners, which are mechanical devices to allow for tuning.  When building a guitar, all these components must be constructed in just the right way to produce the desired sound or tone – and each luthier, while generally building from a similar “template” if they are producing a 6-string acoustic guitar, will construct their guitars in a unique or proprietary manner.  Beyond the form, there are numerous aesthetic choices, and some that are combinations of aesthetic and function.  The choice of material for tuner buttons, for example, is purely an aesthetic choice.  Or the various woods and other materials that make up the rosette (the decorative ring around the sound hole).  But wood choices for the soundboard, and the back and sides, are a combination of function (different woods, typically called “tonewoods”, produce different tones) and aesthetics.  So, the specification for a custom-built guitar follows a pattern which considers both elements – function and aesthetics.


Let me digress for a moment to talk about one of my favourite online forums for acoustic guitars – the Acoustic Guitar Forum or AGF.  This is a great resource for all lovers of acoustic guitars – for players, from beginners to professionals; and for luthiers as well – I highly encourage you to visit the site.  But – they can be a hard-core bunch and will argue over the most minute detail – and tone is one of the most popular and divisive topics.  I daresay there is a post somewhere on the forum that argues that the choice of material for tuner buttons contributes to the tone of the guitar.  While there may be some validity to the argument that all parts of a guitar somehow contribute to its tone, I would argue that the human ear cannot perceive the difference.  Well – certainly not my ear.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I’ve regressed with respect to discerning visual and aural quality differences.  Years ago I was a true A/V nut – I had to have the latest technology; I would argue vigorously about the tonal superiority of one speaker vs another; I would fiddle with various adjustments on my equipment to produce, in my opinion, the most superior audio or visual experience, and convince myself that I could tell the difference.  You know the type – or maybe you don’t.  The interesting thing is, as technology became cheaper and cheaper, it became more accessible.  It also became more ubiquitous.  And as I got older, I found that I cared less and less about fine distinctions of quality.  Even cheap TV’s these days produce stunning picture.  The same is generally true for audio – and I think we care less about quality than we do about convenience these days.  Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent – but the point is, as I’ve gotten older, I find I care less about super fine distinctions of tonal quality.  At the end of the day, there are so many other variables that are going to contribute to that sound reaching our ears, and then our brains, that I think this obsessive focus on creating a particular tone is a fool’s errand.

The Luthier’s Process

I can hear Steve Kinnaird’s tongue in cheek response to this section title – “Process?….I didn’t know we had a process!”.  Steve is being tongue in cheek – he is one of the finest luthiers in the US, and currently building a guitar for me.  As for process, from my experience it really varies from luthier to luthier.  There are some that build guitars in a serial fashion, focusing on one at time, and not starting a new one until the current one is finished.  There are some that work in small batches – essentially doing several guitars at once, and then moving on to another batch.  And there are even some that do their annual production in a completely batch fashion.  Jim Olson , arguably one of the most well-known and respected custom luthiers in the world, currently builds around 30-40 guitars a year – by himself.  He moves through this process by completing all the component parts, and assembly, and finishing, in batches.  For example, one week he’ll only work on necks – he will complete all the necks for his entire year’s commissions over the course of several weeks.  He’ll then move on to all the other components in batch fashion – cutting, sanding, and bracing the soundboards; forming the back and sides; etc.  This allows him to focus on one task at a time.  I find the whole process fascinating.  A luthier’s workshop will have a large variety of tools – some powered, some not – large, small – and typically very well organized.  The attention to detail is spectacular – tiny mitered joints, for example, on purflings (an ornamental border) and bindings (the edges where the top and bottom of the guitars are joined to the sides).  I once had a friend who swore that these couldn’t be inlayed wood, they had to be painted on because the lines and tolerances were so tight!  No – unless you have an inexpensive factory produced guitar, those purfling lines are inlayed and mitered by hand.  Prior to the build process, there is another whole process between the luthier and the buyer – the specification process.  Depending upon the luthier, this can either be very custom, with many, many choices and back/forth; or it can be minimal, where you pick a standard model with standard features (the guitar is still handmade, but to a standard specification).  When I had my Olson guitar built, other than picking the wood, and fret marker, I pretty much went with a standard Olson SJ model.  However, with my current build, I am very focused and involved in having Steve and Ryan (Ryan Middlebrook, another luthier who works with Steve) build a very personal, custom guitar.


It all starts with wood.  Acoustic guitars are, at their core, wooden instruments – and I think a large part of my love of the artistry of guitars is my love of wood.  I love that it’s an organic material that was once alive.  It’s unique – no two pieces of wood are identical.  There are an almost endless variety of woods, with lots of different characteristics – color; grain; density; porosity; strength; etc.  Wood is also one of the things I love about Maine – we are a state with vast timber reserves; we are covered with it!  If I think about Maine, I think about forest; coast; stone – those are its basic elements.  Maine also is home to another one of the US’s best luthiers – Dana Bourgeois.  With his workshop in Lewiston, Dana and his team have been building world class instruments for over 40 years.  Dana has written extensively about wood in guitar building, I once owned one of Dana’s guitars – #1 in a series of 15 guitars he built for his 40th anniversary building guitars.  A mahogany guitar with a torrefied (more on that later) Adirondack spruce top, the guitar was stunning.  Unfortunately, I never really bonded with the guitar – for my playing style and sound preference, it never really fit for me.  But the wood – look at the figuring in the mahogany; the grain in the soundboard; the exotic look of the fretboard and bridge, using a wood known as snakewood.  More than anything in a guitar, I love the way that contrasting woods can come together to produce sound and beauty in one package.  Years ago, acoustic guitars were primarily made from rosewood (East Indian or Brazilian) for back and sides; and spruce (typically Sitka spruce) for the soundboard.  Yes, there were certainly other woods used – mahogany; cedar; etc. but these wood choices made up the large majority of guitars.  Over time, unfortunately, many of the once common woods used for guitars have become endangered and protected.  Brazilian rosewood was the first to get widespread protection, but others have followed.  To be clear, the over harvesting and poor management of these trees was not driven primarily by the guitar industry (which represents a tiny portion of the use of these woods) – but nevertheless, it is becoming more difficult to source these once common woods.  I am fortunate enough to have a Brazilian rosewood guitar built by Jim Olson – it looks and sounds beautiful – that was built using wood harvested prior to the restrictions.  However, it’s an instrument that I won’t travel with outside of the US (it will probably never see Argentina), because I won’t risk it getting seized by customs (even though it was legally harvested, I won’t risk an overzealous customs agent putting me through months of grief).  But the wood choices have really expanded as luthiers have become increasingly creative and adventurous in their choice of woods – woods like Bubinga; Pernambuco; Sycamore; Koa; Cocobolo; Kauri; Myrtlewood.  For a good luthier, his/her wood locker is core to their craft.


Did you always assume that guitars were more or less standard with respect to shape and size?  I once did, but over time I’ve found that there are a wide variety of choices.  The basic choices include width and length of the fretboard; number of frets; size and shape of the neck; depth of the body; and shape of the body (if the body is slightly hourglass shape, the upper bout is the top part of the hourglass, the lower bout is the bottom part), including width of the upper bout, lower bout, and waist.  There isn’t a standard nomenclature for shape and body size – you’ll see designations like OO, OOO, OM, Dreadnought, Parlor; SJ; Jumbo; etc. – and while it gives people a sense of the shape/size, each luthier will have his own models and specifications.  The dreadnought shape/size was (and probably still is in terms of numbers) the most popular in the US.  All my earlier guitars were dreadnoughts, but as I have aged (and have shoulder issues), and my guitar playing style has evolved, I now prefer smaller guitars.  I think this is a typical pattern, and I suspect most luthiers will tell you that they rarely do dreadnoughts for custom commissions.  Take a look at Ed Sheeran – a fantastic guitarist by the way.  He uses a ¾ size guitar made by Martin, called an LX1.  In addition, luthiers these days are finding additional ways to accommodate comfort, particularly for us old guys!  Some will incorporate a bevel on the transition from side to top, instead of a 90-degree angle, to provide additional comfort.


The soundboard is the thin top wood of the guitar.  This is the component of the guitar that contributes the most to the overall tone of a guitar.  The characteristics a luthier is looking for is light but stiff, with enough elasticity to produce harmonics and overtones.  Historically, Spruce was the “go to” material for most guitar soundboards, and in particular, Sitka Spruce.  There are, however, many other materials that are commonly used, each providing different tonal characteristics – including Cedar, Maple Redwood, Mahogany, and Koa.  Luthiers also select soundboard materials for aesthetics, some of which contribute to the tonal characteristics (such as uniformity of grain).  Dana Bourgeois, the Maine luthier I mentioned before, is a strong proponent of “tonal tapping” for selecting the best soundboards.  In this process, he acoustically taps the soundboards in different locations, listening for certain harmonics and resonance, and then selecting those that meet his acoustic criteria.  Others don’t believe in tonal tapping at all – and focus instead on the bracing used for the soundboard – each luthier uses a proprietary design for their bracing, attempting to produce a consistent tone in their instruments.  The braces are typically custom shaped for each soundboard – with the intent on minimizing weight and maximizing strength and stiffness in certain directions.  I’m not sure about tap tones, but I do believe that 70% or more of the tonal characteristics of an acoustic guitar come from the soundboard – so this is where I focus on the type of tonal characteristics I’m looking for – whether it’s the sweeter, broader range of a Sitka Spruce or the warmer, lusher tones of a cedar, the soundboard wood choice is going to define the general tone of your guitar.  There has also been a trend to offer soundboard tops that have been torrefied – essentially cooked in a low oxygen environment.  The idea is to replicate the effects of aging by cooking off some of the volatile compounds in the soundboard.  It also produces a wonderful dark shade to a lighter Spruce top.  I’m not sure that I necessarily believe in the ageing effects of torrefaction – but I do like the visual aspects.  My Bourgeois had a torrefied Adirondack Spruce top  – you can see how the torrefication process darkened the wood.


The back and side woods on an acoustic guitar are also tonewoods – their selection will drive, in part, the tonal characteristics of the guitar, although not nearly to the same extent as the soundboard. If the soundboard contributes 70% of the tone of the guitar, I think the back and sides contribute about 25% of the tone.  Others would vehemently disagree with this observation – these distinctions on what contributes to tone are endlessly argued.  But for me, that’s about the right contribution.  So, while the back and sides are also selected with some regard to the tonal characteristics they will contribute, the aesthetic qualities are probably a much bigger driver here.  The selection of woods for the back and sides is much broader than for the top – and these days, there is quite a large range indeed.  I’ve already mentioned some of these, but the list, as I’ve found, is seemingly endless.  In addition to the general type of wood, there are also many grain distinctions – from general straight grain woods to those that are highly figured – quilting; spalting; burled; curly; etc.  Interestingly enough, while some of these are a result of the way the wood is milled, many are the result of injury or disease (like burled walnut) or fungi (like spalted maple).  Another visually striking characteristic of certain woods is chatoyance, or the cats eye effect.  This is similar to the light refraction you might see in certain gemstones, like tiger’s eye.  The effect in wood can be stunning, and is enhanced by polishing and finishing techniques.  Again, like with the soundboard, selection of the back and side wood is partially driven by tone you are looking for.  Density plays a large part here – I tend to like the sounds produced by more dense woods, like Rosewoods.  For me, they produce more overtones and harmonics than less dense woods like Mahogany and Maple (although I have a wonderful 12-string maple guitar that has a beautiful crisp, sound).  In addition, there is a tonal interaction between the top wood, and the back and sides, that must be considered when selecting woods for your guitar.  Finally, one thing I like to point out to people – when you are playing a guitar, the back of that guitar is towards your body – nobody sees it.  Yet many of us spend a lot of time trying to pick the perfect back from a visual perspective.  I think this demonstrates how many of us love the craftsmanship and artistry of the instrument – even for elements that we only see when we aren’t playing the guitar.



Some of the other components of a guitar also contribute to functional and tonal qualities, but not to the same extent as for the top, back, and sides.  For fretboards, the wood of choice has historically been ebony – and for me, this is still my favourite material for the fretboard.  For the fretboard, you need something that can take a beating (so you want hard and dense) and is smooth (so tight pores and oily).  Rosewood is also a fretboard material choice, but I prefer Ebony.  There are increasingly some exotic choices as well, that can provide some visual contrast – Snakewood is one of these, although it’s a material some luthiers find difficult to work.  The bridge is the component that transfers (along with the saddle) the vibrations of the strings to the soundboard, so you want something that doesn’t absorb vibrations – you want hard and dense like the fretboard.  And again, Rosewood and Ebony are the woods of choice for the fretboard.  However recently, I chose a very unusual bridge for my latest guitar – it’s made from African Blackwood and has a section of sapwood (lighter colored) running along it.  The African Blackwood has similar characteristics as Ebony.  There are many different shapes to bridges – these are generally aesthetic choices.  Here are a few interesting ones.  The saddle is the thinner vertical material wedged into the bridge which keeps the strings a certain distance from the fretboard (this distance, known as the action, is very important in playing – too high and it’s difficult to fret the strings, too low and the strings will hit the frets when vibrating, causing a buzz.  For the saddle, the materials are typically a synthetic (usually one called Tusq); bone; or ivory (sometimes fossil ivory).  While I’m not too selective on this component, I typically prefer bone or ivory, as I believe that synthetic materials tend to absorb too much of the energy in the strings.  The nut is the strip of material at the top of the fretboard that the strings angle over prior to terminating on the tuners, and sets the spacing of the strings (which is very important to comfort and playing style).  Materials are similar as those for saddles.


Guitar necks are made from a wide range of materials and come in a wide range of shapes/sizes.  Since this component contributes significantly to comfort of the fretting hand, its important to get the shape right. It’s hard to comment in detail on this – you really have to try different guitars to understand.  With respect to materials, though, I generally leave this to the luthier.  The neck is extremely important to long term playability and stability of the guitar – it holds a lot of stress, and this component really is extremely important.  As a result, I generally prefer luthiers to use a laminated neck – one that is made of 3-5 ply’s, often with a rosewood center and maple or mahogany ply’s.  You need the neck to not warp from the significant stress they hold over a long period of time, and a neck carved from a single block of wood is usually too weak in some direction to provide stability over time.  One thing that many non-guitar folks don’t realize is that there is a steel rod down the center of the neck, called the truss rod.  The truss rod, which is typically adjustable, provides additional strength and can be adjusted for tension.


The headstock (also called peghead) is the piece of wood at the top of the neck, which holds the guitar tuners (also called tuning machines, machine heads, tuning pegs, or tuning gears).  Headstocks are typically a separate piece of wood, glued to the neck with a joint, and usually have a veneer wood on the front and back.  They can either be solid or slotted – I don’t really like the slotted style, but many guitar players prefer the look.  Again, for materials, I usually let the luthier choose the core material, and I select the veneer material.  The headstock shape is typically unique to the luthier, and the headstock is also where the luthier usually puts his/her logo (typically an inlay).  As for the tuners, you will find lots of arguments and discussions on this component as well.  There are many good manufacturers of tuners, in many different styles.  I like Gotoh tuners, but there are other good tuners (Waverly and Grovers are good as well).  It’s important to get high quality tuning machines – you want the guitar to tune easily and stay in tune.

Purflings; Bindings; Rosettes; backstrip; end graft; heel; pickguard; bridge pins

There are lots of other little details associated with an acoustic guitar.  Bindings and purflings provide protective and decorative elements to the edges of the various guitar surfaces.  The rosette, around the soundhole, is purely decorative.  The soundhole itself does provide some sound transmittal, although not as much as many people think.  However, there are different sizes you can choose.  Increasingly popular are sound ports – these are additional holes in the sides of the guitars, which allow the guitar player to hear more of what his/her audience hears.  I don’t have any guitars with sound ports, however my current build with Mr. Kinnaird will have one.  End grafts and heels provide additional surfaces for decorative/protective elements.  Pickguards can also provide protection and decoration – but I generally don’t like pickguards, so leave them off (and I’m not an aggressive strummer).  Bridge pins are the little pins on the bridge that stabilize the strings in the bridge.  I tend to view them as decorative elements, but some people get very passionate about bridge pin material’s contribution to sound.

Inlays (Bling!)

And finally, we have the purely decorative elements of inlays – generally referred to as bling.  This is where personal tastes dominate – some people like a lot of bling, others do not.  I tend to be somewhat conservative.  Even on inlays for fret position markers, I prefer to be very understated.  I do like some inlay, and it’s a great way to personalize a guitar.  Inlay materials can vary as much as the creativity of the luthier or inlay artist – including abalone, copper, steel, silver, wood, enamel.  I find that some luthiers like to do there own inlays and are inlay artists in their own right.  Others prefer to work with a specialized inlay artist for anything other than simple inlays.  Larry Robinson is one of the world’s foremost inlay artist – he has literally written the book on inlays (The Art of Inlay).  Martin guitars commissioned him to inlay Martin’s 1,000,000th guitar (the picture that leads this section)– while the inlay work is amazing, that one is not my style.  Here is another Larry Robinson inlay on a rosette – this one was a clever M.C. Escher-ish fish and bird pattern.  My preference is to utilize some inlays for accents – I like the look of Blue Paua (a type of abalone) purfling inlays around the body of the guitar, an even outlining the fretboard and the headstock.  In the evening, these purflings look spectacular – they subtly glow.  In addition, I like to have a small inlay done on the truss rod cover.  The truss rod cover is a small, typically triangular shaped, piece of wood on the headstock which covers the access hole for the truss rod.  It is generally made of ebony, and is a great place to do a small, personalized inlay.  For my all Koa guitar, I commissioned a wood inlay from Bill Nichols, a well-known inlay artist to play off the Hawaiian wood – very beautiful, understated, and personal/unique to my guitar.  For my Olson guitar, I was fortunate that Jim Olson works with Larry Robinson and was able to refer me to Larry.  I told Larry I wanted to come up with something that reminded me of Maine, so I had sent him some pictures, including a few of Hawthorne trees with berries in winter.  He came back with a sketch, and then completed this beautiful inlay with African Pink Ivory, Koa, and white mother of pearl.


The Build

The build process for the luthier includes hundreds of distinct steps, from selecting and cutting woods, to finishing.  This includes routing, sanding, gluing, scraping, cutting, binding…a dizzying array of steps!  These instruments are handcrafted, and the work that goes into them is stunning.  Rather than describe every step, I’m just going to show you several pictures (some from my builds) which give you a sense of the craftsmanship involved.  The work is physically demanding – for example, scraping down purflings to make them flush with the surface is done by hand. Mark Hatcher, a luthier in New Hampshire, builds some of the most outstanding guitars I have ever seen.  He is not only a great craftsman, he is an artist.  I was particularly taken by a recent guitar Mark built, called the “Lullaby Guitar”, for a player who wanted a small guitar he could use to play for his children at night.  Take a look at the rosette Mark designed and inlayed, along with his very unique, and exquisite headstock design.  He is truly an artist.  One of the last steps is finishing.  Like with inlays, some luthiers prefer to send their guitars off to a specialist for finishing.  This is a much more important step than many people realize.  Not purely decorative, finishing must be done carefully to preserve the sound qualities of the tonewoods used in construction.  There are many different finishing materials preferred by luthiers, including resins, lacquers, and shellacs.  Most standard finishes are sprayed on, but some Luthiers prefer using a technique known as French Polish, which involves multiple coats of shellac that are rubbed into the wood – it is a demanding process full of technique.  The finish can make or break a guitar – apply too much and you will dampen the sound; apply too little and the wood will not be protected.  Apply incorrectly and you will see little blemishes, sometimes called “checking”, appear over time.  The luthier is looking for the thinnest, strongest finish that balances protection, beauty, longevity, and tonal characteristics.

As detailed (and excruciatingly long!) as this post has been, there is actually even more to building a guitar than I’ve mentioned here.  I’m passionate about guitars – this obviously stems first from my love of guitar music (rooted, I am sure, from my upbringing in the 60’s and 70’s), and has, over time, extended to the artistry and craftsmanship inherent in building these amazing instruments.  Every time I pick up one of my instruments, I admire the work that went into their construction – many, many hours of care and attention to detail.  Based on what I suspect are the ages of most of the participants on the AGF, I fear that there is a younger generation that does not have the same connection to these instruments as I think my generation has.  I hope that’s not true, and I hope there are some of you that will get just a little more intrigued about guitars, and maybe one of you will commission a build of your own one day.  While this post has been focused on the craft of guitar building, I hope some of you are inspired to at least learn to play.  You don’t have to start with a luthier-built guitar – in fact, you’d be crazy to do that!  There are a few guitars I recommend for beginners – good guitars under $500 that you’ll be happy to own for a lifetime, and not afraid of the occasional dings and scratches – just contact me and I’ll provide some recommendations.  Some of you have probably said “Someday I’d love to learn how to play guitar” – well get started!  Make someday, today!


We are fortunate to be living in a time where we have such extraordinary luthiers out there, and I encourage you to google around and learn more about their amazing work.  As I previously mentioned, the Acoustic Guitar Forum is a great place to start, particularly their Custom Shop section.  Some of the luthiers I particularly admire are Jim Olson, Steve Kinnaird, Maine’s own Dana Bourgeios, and Mark Hatcher.  Many of the amazing pictures in this post are from Mark Hatcher – I don’t know if Mark takes his own photos, but if so, he can add photography to his list of many talents!  Larry Robinson is one of the most respected inlay artists in the US, and I’m proud to have a Larry Robinson inlay!  Bill Nichols also does wonderful inlay work.  There are many other luthiers out there doing stunning work – people like John Kinnaird (Steve’s Brother), Bruce Sexauer, Tim McKnight, David Wren, John Osthoff, Stephen Strahm, Bruce Petros, Ryosuke Kobayashi, and many, many others – do yourself a favor and check out their work.