Castle Ghosts of Victoria

Beautiful images from the haunted Hatley Castle near Victoria in Canada, just in time for All Hallows Eve.

the runes of the gatekeeper's daughter

This is my offering to Ed Mooneys spectacular Spooktacular for Halloween. The castle and grounds are a perfect afternoon haunt.

Royal Roads 2 Hatley Castle as seen from the Italian Garden

Colwood is an area outside of Victoria and there, in a beautiful setting by the ocean, sits Hatley Castle.  Built by  architect Samuel MacLure for James Dunsmuir, the son of coal baron Robert Dunsmuir,  it lies on 565 acres of beautiful gardens and woodlands.  James Dunsmuir,  was the Lt. Governor in 1906 when he commissioned MacLure to design the castle for himself and his wife Laura.  After the death of James, the property was eventually sold to the Government in 1939.  It was turned into a  Military Academy which remained in operation until 1995 after which it became Royal Roads University.

During those Victorian times The Dunsmuir family achieved great status.  Robert Dunsmuir, emigrated from Scotland in 1851, and made a fortune in coal on…

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The Fedora Rides Shotgun

Painting from the Gage Hotel

“Mom, you’re so weird.”

I just returned from camping by myself in Big Bend National Park.

I had not been camping since 2009, and as I looked at what to do with a few days off in September, all I could think of was what it sounds like to wake up in a tent.

Fedora on headrest of car
The Fedora Rides Shotgun

There have been times in my life that I slept in a tent to drop the overall cost of a cross-country vacation. I moved from New Orleans to Seattle and eventually back to NOLA, and multiple times both direction I camped with my cat, Jenny, and my bird named Charlie. Then when my daughter was going to Girl Scout camp in the Davis Mountains, I took my tent and launched out to various places, like Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I don’t need to camp anymore, but I’ve found that I miss it. This is where I need to be really honest. I don’t camp in the haul-it-in-on-your-back way. No, thank you. It’s car camping, so I have a cot and a nice tent and a great camp stove.

Catherine saw my grocery list for the trip. “You’re bringing red snapper? Orzo? Normal people make easy stuff when they camp.”

Preparing steaks, new potatoes and asparagus for the grill
Steaks, new potatoes and asparagus for the grill

Yes, I like good food, and I enjoy cooking. I’ve learned that there are many delicious things I can make with a grill, some foil and a little ingenuity.

At the end of the day, what this is really, really about  — it’s seeing the stars, and hearing the breeze pull at the tent. It’s sitting with my coffee in the morning and watching the last stars fade out, the light grow until the sun peeks her head above the horizon.

Fixing another cup of coffee

Big Bend National Park. It happens to be my personal park.

No, really. I have been many times, simply because it was the closest big western landscape to Houston. I can go and get my desert, big sky, big rock fix in less than a week — if I have to do so.

When I came here with Drew in 2010, it was before he was diagnosed with cancer. On the Lost Mine trail, there is a vista that opens up between the peaks in the Chisos mountains and the desert stretches out into the far distance. I told Drew that right there, that spot, behind the big rock we sat on as we enjoyed the view, that would be where to bring my ashes when I died. He looked at me and said, “it’s perfect. That’s what I want, too.”

We thought we would live to be . . . well, old. I promised to chase him around the breakfast table when we were eighty.

Life had other plans for us though, and we took them as gracefully as we could. We talked several times about where he wanted me to take his ashes when he died. He never wavered.

Drew on our rock, Lost Mine Trail, 2010
Drew on our rock, Lost Mine Trail, 2010

Wasn’t he a beautiful man? I did go spread his ashes in January of 2014. Several of his siblings were able to join me, and it was a very special pilgrimage.

View from the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend
The view from our rock

So now the fedora rides shotgun with me. This time, my trip was not about ashes and it was not about mourning. It was about feeling the Big Bend again and being very, very alive.


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Ann Fisher

The Pilgrim Soul

Ann and Catherine

My daughter Catherine turned seventeen yesterday.

My daughter
My daughter

Catherine is smart and very funny, disciplined in her studies, and she is kind. Last year, when I really wondered whether I would survive the cancer, I felt calm when I thought about Catherine. I knew she was on “her path.” And that even without me, she would be fine.

Catherine is my best. The best. Nothing I have done with my fifty years compares. To reach this point fills me with a deep sense of calm and well-being.

I have been an unlikely mother. I often think of Kate Chopin’s Awakening:

“The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”

This was not me. I am more similar to Edna, who ended up walking into the surf to drown rather than choosing to live a life where she could not be independent.

I struggled in the baby years. I felt that I had lost myself, that Ann had disappeared.

In my teens, I was the diligent student. In my twenties, on my first solo trip to Europe, I fell deeply in love with life and travel. In my truest, deepest nature I am a curious, restless seeker. Exploration and discovery, of myself, the world, thoughts, and the meeting and knowing of people — ah, I could give my life to this! And so much of my twenties were devoted to travel and adventure. I grabbed up life in big armfuls and held it close.

In order to have my daughter, I had to let go of those things for many years.

Thankfully, that has changed. Catherine and I make trips together, and I now travel solo again. A summer school month in Florence, Italy, transformed Catherine into a self-confident traveler in her own right.

Ann Fisher and her daughter Catherine
With my daughter

As Catherine and I point towards her final year and a half of high school and we both move towards new chapters of life.

She sat snuggled up with me this morning, having her coffee while I had mine, before she got dressed and drove herself to school. These are the moments that make the whole journey worthwhile.

To my beautiful daughter on her seventeenth birthday — what can I say? You are one of my favorite people in all of the world.



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Ann Fisher

Tagliatelle with Mushrooms

Porcini mushrooms
Porcini mushrooms

Over the past two years, I have visited Italy multiple times, and I have learned so much through cooking with a wonderful woman in Florence. I think I’ve learned just as much eating there. One of the things I appreciate the most about Italian cooking is the simplicity of the ingredients. This dish is about mushrooms and onions with a caramelized tomato flavor.

What kind of mushrooms? If we were in Italy, I would choose porcini mushrooms, but getting them fresh here is not so easy. I have used cremini mushrooms (baby portobellos). This time I used shiitake mushrooms because my market had some really lovely ones. I would not use the standard white mushrooms because the flavor is not intense enough. Depending on the type of mushroom you choose, the stems may be tough and should be discarded, unless you want them for flavor in making a stock.

Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake Mushrooms

You can also use dried mushrooms. The benefit can be a more intense flavor. If I can get fresh ones — I like the texture better. If you do use dried mushrooms, use 3/4 cup, soak them in water for an hour, drain and then squeeze the excess water from them and proceed with the recipe below.

Cremini or baby portobellos
Cremini or baby portobello mushrooms

Then to the pasta. What is the difference between tagliatelle and fettuccine? They are very close to the same. When I make pasta from scratch, it is tagliatelle. Fettuccine is a great substitute because it’s available dry in most stores, and it is the nearly the same width as tagliatelle, only a touch wider. It’s just a bit thicker.


Serves four.

  • 2 cups mushrooms (see above for type), coarsely chopped
  • Half a medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 5 tablespoons tomato paste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • fresh tagliatelle or dry fettuccine (3 – 4 ounces dry pasta per person)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano

Put water into your pasta pot along with some sea salt or kosher salt. Water takes awhile to boil, so you’ll want to turn the heat up on high about the time you put the water and wine into the sauce below. You can always drop the temperature on the pasta water down if it comes to a boil before you are ready to cook the pasta.

Cook the onion and mushrooms in the olive oil over a medium high heat for about four minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the water and the wine, continue cooking until liquid is reduced by half or more. Be sure your pasta water is heating.

Then add the tomato paste. Drop the heat to between low and medium and continue cooking for about 30 minutes, stirring often. This will become dense and non-liquid. You may need to drop the heat. If you are using dry pasta, begin cooking it in the last ten minutes of finishing the mushroom mixture.

Toss the pasta with freshly grated parmigiano cheese and the mushroom mixture, and serve immediately.

Note on tossing the pasta: I toss individual servings — this way you get a balanced amount of mushroom mixture, pasta and cheese. Much better than tossing all of it together — where you have a tendency to get a uneven mixture.

Tagliatelle with Mushrooms
Tagliatelle with Mushrooms

How much pasta per person? It depends on whether it is a side dish, or the main dish. I would use 2 ounces (dry pasta weight) for a side dish, and 3 to 4 ounces for a main dish, depending on the appetites of the people you are serving.

Photographs: both my own and from iStockPhoto.

Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad

Watermelon and Tomato Salad
Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad: Outstanding as a side dish, or a light main dish.

Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad

  • Watermelon, cut in chunks
  • Tomatoes (MUST have flavor — see notes below)
  • Goat cheese, simple, crumbled
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Sweet basil
  • Cashews, roasted, unsalted
  • (Base quantities on the other things you plan to serve. If this is a side dish, a couple of slices of tomato and four small chunks of watermelon per person, or more — as desired).

Arrange sliced tomatoes and watermelon on plate. I like a little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on the tomatoes only. Be very light with the oil. Crumble goat cheese over the watermelon and tomatoes. Sprinkle on a few cashews. Then add basil. The little baby leaves are best for this — add three or four. If the basil leaves are large, cut them into smaller pieces.

**** It’s really imperative that the tomatoes have good flavor. I’ve had good luck with yellow heirloom tomatoes this summer. Campari tomatoes are typically pretty good. I have used small grape tomatoes in a pinch. And, if you cannot get good tomatoes, this salad with just the watermelon is still great.

The olive oil came from the Ornellaia vineyards in the Bolgheri region of Tuscany. Ornellaia makes extraordinary wine. I heartily recommend their Serra Nuove. The olive oil . . . well, you have to visit the winery in Tuscany. An excuse to return :-).

Watermelon and Tomato Salad



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Love in the Afternoon

I found myself sleepy to the point of no concentration. The words on the page kept running together, and the thought of another cup of coffee was appealing. I left the La Salle Hotel and walked down Main Street to the Harvest Coffee Bar.

Harvest Coffee Bar, Bryan, Texas
Slo Bru at the Harvest Coffee Bar in Bryan, Texas

The distillation contraption was intriguing, and I soon had a little cup of the cold brewed coffee and headed back towards my room. I wanted to get a another several hundred words down.

It was then that I saw him. He was standing at a shop window, then he turned and looked at me. He pulled off his sunglasses and smiled.

The soul of Mr. Underwood

I smiled in return but continued walking.

He said, “Stop and talk with me awhile. I think we may have much to say to one another.”

I pulled up short, and looked at him again. His blue eyes were were sincere and compelling.

We stood talking in the street for a long time. His name was Underwood. While his face was lined and he was evidently older than I first thought, the more we talked and the more stories he shared, I found myself completely taken with him. He followed me back to the La Salle.

Mr. Underwood
Mr. Underwood

We woke the next morning with the sun glowing around the edges of the blinds.

After pulling on my clothes and getting my bag together, I turned to him. “I’m really not ready to stop here . . . would you consider coming to Houston, and spending some time with me?”

His smile lines deepened, and those blue eyes gave me a wonderful look.

Lucca and the Underwood typewriter
Lucca and Mr. Underwood


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Francesca Cooks: Pasta of the Maremma

Pasta with fish cooked in a shellfish stock

I originally posted this on my Francesca Bergamasco site. This recipe took me four or five tries to work out completely, since I was working from a taste memory. I finally got it, have cooked it several times now — and it was well worth the effort to get the recipe right!

Francesca Bergamasco

Lunch on the Tuscan Coast Beautiful mid-week day in June.

Having lunch on the Tuscan Coast Pasta on the seaside. Bellissimo!

When I was in Italy a couple of months ago, I had a fabulous pasta that was cooked in a seafood broth. When I say this what I mean is that the pasta was not cooked separately and then tossed in the broth. It was cooked in the broth. The ingredients were simple. The taste was rich, amazing. Unforgettable. I came home determined to replicate the dish. It’s taken six tries and two months, but here it is. And it was worth every minute of effort.

I have spent a great deal of time in Italy in the last two years. Certainly, the way I cook Italian food has changed dramatically. I’ve taken lessons with a wonderful woman in Florence — Firenze, and she has been like having an Italian, I would say Mom, but really more like a big…

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