The Grandest Villa

Downtown San Antonio the Villa Finale in King Willaim

by Celia Hayes

We walked through the part of the Riverwalk which runs from the Blue Star Art Complex up through King William last weekend, marveling at all the lovely period houses lining quiet, tree-lined streets. Although right next door to each other and very nearly of the same vintage, King William and Southtown have completely different sensibilities. The old Southtown houses are smaller, closer together, and many of them are more given over to commercial and artistic enterprises. While King William neighborhood does have a number of smaller bungalows and cottages lining the streets, it is the mansions and extensive gardens which set it apart; and one of the most splendid (after the Steves Homestead) is the Villa Finale – the home of the conservationist who put King William on the map as far as historical districts go.

The area was San Antonio’s first extensive up-scale suburb, beginning around the mid-19th century, when well-to-do German merchants and industrialists like C.H. Guenther, of the Pioneer Flour Mill began building stately mansions on what had been the outlaying farmlands attached to Mission San Antonio de Valero and Mission Conception. That first glorious heyday lasted until well into the 1920s, when the well-to-do began being drawn into newer developments in Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills, on rising land to the north of downtown. Many of the stately mansions became boarding houses, or broken up into apartments, and the area gently – or precipitously –decayed.

The credit for reviving the neighborhood and kick-starting restoration of many of the historic mansions and residences is usually given to Walter Mathis; a descendent of several local notables, including John W. Smith, last messenger from the Alamo and later Mayor of San Antonio. After service as an Army Air Corps combat pilot during WWII, he turned to investment banking, civic good works and collecting art and memorabilia. Late in the 1960s, he bought the house presently known as the Villa Finale and spent several years in research and meticulous repair; a splendid Italianate pile with a three-story square tower at one side. He filled the house with fine furniture, art and the results of his own enthusiastic collecting, lovingly landscaped the grounds … and then turned to other houses in the neighborhood, purchasing at least fourteen other houses and either restoring them entirely or in part, before re-selling – often on very favorable terms – to friends and acquaintances who could carry on the restoration. His efforts kick-started establishment of King William area as a National Historical District – and since then, of course, much are envied those homeowners who were either lucky enough to inherit property in the area, or who were perspicuous enough to acquire it for a song, way back then.

The Villa sits on King William Street and backs on the leg of the Riverwalk which runs through King William. The garden features a gazebo and a long wall separating it from the mansion next door – adorned with inset relief carvings. At this time of year the plantings are plain but serviceable; nothing spectacular or elaborate; just well-tended native plants or native-adapted plants and trees. There is a charge for visiting the house itself, but none for visiting the grounds and garden.

Jams and Preserves A Specialty Shop in Fredericksburg

A Little Local Home Grown Company

by Celia Hayes

So, I came to San Antonio for my final tour of Air Force duty in 1995 – but I think it took a little while for me to discover Fredericksburg, and the lovely, tasty specialty food products put out by Fischer and Wieser, of Fredericksburg in the Hill Country. It is in my mind that for the first couple of years, Fredericksburg was the only place that you could buy them anyway. Certainly all the little gourmet food outlets along Main Street had a good selection of Fischer & Wieser jams and preserves. There was an annex to Das Peach Haus in a teeny former residence near to the Nimitz Museum, which is where we usually bought those items which took our fancy.

Looking at the company website, it appears that was about the time that Case Fischer developed the Roasted Raspberry Chipotle sauce, which in movie parlance, was a tiny little local biasness’s First Big Break. Roasted Raspberry Chipotle is magnificent, by the way, but at first it must have seemed to be one of the weirdest concoctions ever proposed. Smoked Mexican chipotle peppers … and runny raspberry jam? Together? Hoooo-kay… But it put Fischer & Wieser – and chipotle peppers on the map. (For my money, the best thing on grilled shrimp is the ginger-habanero sauce, though. After driving past Das Peach Haus every time we came in to Fredericksburg by the road from Comfort – we finally stopped and went inside, and realized that – oh, my, it is bigger than it looks! There are little patches of landscaped garden all around, shaded by a grove of pine trees. And there are resident cats, too – always a good indication of quality, no matter if the product is books, garden stuff … or gourmet foods.

But the peach orchard which was the genesis of the company has been around since the Wieser family bought the property in the 1920s, and their son Mark opened a roadside fruit stand in 1969. There are a lot of seasonal roadside fruit stands on the main roads leading to Fredericksburg, and the Peach Haus was just one of them. The family sold fresh peaches, of course, and home-made peach preserves. Mark Wieser also taught school – and one of his students often helped out at peach harvesting time. Case Fischer was so keen on the possibilities of a specialty-food, development, marketing and entrepreneurship, that he went off to college and studied all that … and when he came home to Fredericksburg, he teamed up with his old teacher, and set about innovating, creating and producing quality foods; sauces for meats and pastas, mustards, jams and preserves, pie filling, salad dressing and dips.

And instead of just keeping it a local thing, Fischer & Wieser went national. Within a couple of years, I didn’t have to make the long drive up to Fredericksburg for some Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce – it and other products were on the shelves at the local HEB – even my own local, which usually is a little light on the gourmet goods. Even better – they are available in military commissaries and on Not bad for a tiny local enterprise which started as a roadside fruit stand. Yes, indeedy – they did build that business.

But look out for the Ghost Pepper BBQ sauce … more than a quarter of a teaspoon can be lethal. I think it’s made for people who think straight Tabasco is just too darned bland.

Texas Sales Tax Holiday

Texas Tax Free Weekend

Sales Tax Holiday
Aug. 9 – 11, 2013

The recent passage of Senate Bill 485 (83rd Regular Legislative Session, 2013) changes the dates of the this year’s annual Sales Tax Holiday to Aug. 9-11, a week earlier than previously scheduled. The change in law became effective immediately. As in previous years, the law exempts most clothing, footwear, school supplies and backpacks priced under $100 from sales and use taxes, which could save shoppers about $8 on every $100 they spend.

Subject to the criteria explained below, all sales of qualifying items made during the holiday period qualify for the exemption, including items sold online, or by telephone or mail. Lay-away plans can be used again this year to take advantage of the sales tax holiday.

The dates for the sales tax holiday are set by the Legislature.

The “Fine Print” – important information you should know about this tax-saving event

Clothing and Footwear


School Supplies

Layaways and Rainchecks

Prohibited Advertising

Reporting Requirements for Sellers

Authentic Foods from Spain

More Flavors of Spain

by Celia Hayes

My mother just sent us a basket of gourmet foods from Spain as a Christmas present for us again, since last year’s basket from La Tienda was such a big hit. We loved living in Spain, loved the food, adored grazing from the little plates – the tapas – invitingly set out at bars, loved the fact that a ‘bar’ in Spain was usually not just a seamy joint serving spirituous liquors to an assortment of skeevey low-lives. A bar in Spain was much more likely to be a kind of café, coffee shop and neighborhood club-house, the place housing the pay phones, ATMs, video game machines, and clean bathrooms … and oh, yes – serving snacks and alcoholic drinks of every possible description. It also mildly freaked out many Americans upon discovering that many gas stations on the highway – or autopista – also had very well-stocked bars. Make of that what you will.

Mom’s Christmas basket again revived memories of some wonderful food, although it did not, for instance, include any jamon Serrano – that dried, cured ham which was available practically anywhere, and was a component of so many dishes. It was a rare rustic restaurant which didn’t have a couple of whole curing jamons hanging from the ceiling beams, and a rare bar that didn’t have one on hand for making the little tapas snacks from, with half the flesh shaved away in tissue-paper thin slices. The Spanish equivalent of Costco or Sam’s Club had them for sale in a special section … which it must be admitted, always smelt faintly of cheesy gym socks.
But there was one dish made with jamon Serrano which I loved, and only had once, in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate having followed the old pilgrim road from the Rioja to Asturias – and that was a dish of baby artichokes cooked with jamon. I went looking for recipes for it, and found one which calls for one lemon cut in half, 1 and ¾ pounds tiny baby artichokes – the ones barely the size of a small egg, before the chokes inside have gotten coarse and inedible, ¼ cup of olive oil, 3 Tbsp minced fresh parsley, 8 thin slices of jamon, also chopped, and salt and pepper.

Fill a large pan with cold water, and squeeze the lemons into it, adding the squeezed lemon halves. Trim the inedible stalk and tough outer leaves from each artichoke, and cut each in half, putting them into the lemon-water immediately; this will prevent them from turning brown. When finished processing the artichokes, put the pan on the stove, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes, until the artichokes are tender. Drain, discarding water and lemon halves. Pat the artichokes dry. Heat the oil in a frying pan large enough to hold the artichokes in a single layer. Arrange the artichokes cut-side-down and fry for 5 minutes. Turn them over and fry the other side for two minutes, then add the jamon Serrano and fry for another four minutes, until the jamon is crispy. Place in a serving dish and top with the parsley and ground pepper. Oh, if it were only the season now for baby artichokes, and if Mom’s gift basked had only included jamon Serrano – I would definitely fix this for our Christmas Eve tapas supper!

The Cibolo Creek Flows Through Boerne

A River Flows Through It

Click photos to enlarge


As the Riverwalk of San Antonio is such an ornament to the city and such a popular tourist attraction (only second after the Alamo) that one of the nicknames for our fair town is ‘The River City’ you’d think that any municipal organization possessing the necessary attribute – a permanent body of water deeper than a puddle in, or flowing through downtown – would have been been seen as a gift and an opportunity to do something like it. Maybe not cheek by cheek eateries and boutiques – but at least a pleasant string park, paralleling the river bank can this be created, for the benefit of the residents, the enriching of those retail establishments lucky to overlook it, and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of visitors to such a blessed community.

And so has the community of Boerne done, for a number of blocks paralleling River Road, on either side of Main Street. There is a generous paved trail, some added landscaping and stone work, paralleling the northern bank of Cibolo Creek as it runs through town. It seems that back in the day, Cibolo Creek was just as prone to overflow its banks and flood out parts of Boerne – just as the San Antonio River did, although on a much grander scale. We had noticed the new construction being done on the park, once we discovered Route 46/River Road; the back way between San Antonio and Boerne. So, last weekend we took advantage of slightly cooler temperatures to make a return trip to Boerne, as my daughter had her eye on certain items at the Squirrel’s Nest Resale Shop. The Squirrel’s Nest benefits Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation – an organization that everyone in this part of Texas ought to know about and support, since they are the go-to people when you find an injured, distressed and otherwise out-of-place wild animal or bird.

We had lunch at the Bear Moon Café – which was quite good; everything is made in-house and the servings are generous. Then we walked around a bit, and checked out some of the shops. This was not so much for what was in them, a lot of which was terribly high-end and pricy, but rather to look at the buildings themselves, many of which are historic old houses and business premises, and enormously charming in that respect. They were built for Texas, in the days before air conditioning, and some of them even before electrification: small rooms which opened into other rooms, or a central hall, with high ceilings, and tall windows. Usually there was a wide, shaded porch across the front, and if two-storied, those rooms on the upper floor also opened onto a verandah..

The Riverside Park already seems to be popular; we saw one family eating a picnic lunch, and a number of others settled in with fishing gear, sending their hooks into the lazy green water. The ducks and geese had all sought out shady places, on the opposite bank, though. The only other water critters we saw were turtles; and we didn’t realize at first that they were turtles. I thought their heads sticking up above the surface were just lengths of broken branch, until the heads vanished below the water, and there was a soup-bowl sized turtle, just dimly seen, diving down into deeper water.

All in all, a lovely afternoon in the Hill Country. That was my Saturday – and yours?


The Way of the Okra

Although I have only one huge okra plant, and a couple of others which have produced intermittently and spasmodically, individual okes (is that the singular of okra, like meese should be the singular of moose?) my garden just doesn’t seem to produced sufficient of them in a short period of time to make a decent batch of okra pickles on any given day. At least, not enough to be worth firing up the canning kettle. It’s really not worth heating up the kitchen in my San Antonio home unless there are at least three quarts or six pints in contention … and my okra plants just aren’t that prolific. So I cheated – I went and bought two pounds of okra at the Indian market (cunningly disguised as a gas station on the corner of 410 and Starcrest) and added into it the gleanings of the last week or so and made a batch of spicy okra pickles from a recipe that I found on the interned and amended. Oddly enough, we like okra as pickles, in gumbo and even breaded and deep-fried, in which format it is as addictive as popcorn although somewhat more fattening … but okra on it’s own … that is a vegetable that needs work.

Basically, make a pickling brine from 2 ⅔ cup cider vinegar and 1 ½ cup water, and 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and when it comes to a simmer, either add to it, or steep in a tea-ball, 2 Tbsp. pickling spices.

I used another net-recipe for pickling spice, which called for 2 Tbsp. mustard seeds, 2 Tbsp. whole allspice, 2 teasp coriander seeds, the same of cloves, 1 teaspoon of ground ginger and the same of dried red pepper flakes, a crumbled bay leaf and a two-inch length of cinnamon stick. This makes more than needed for a single batch, so save the remainder for the next batch.

Meanwhile, pack the raw okra into 2 hot and sterilized 1-quart jars, and tuck in among the packed oke pods in each jar, 2-3 peeled and lightly crushed garlic cloves, 2-3 dried chili pods (I used ripe red jalapeno and paprika pods from my garden) and two or three small bay leaves … I have a small bay tree in the garden, so again … from my garden. It helps to pack the first layer of okra in the jar with the wide end down, and then wedge the next layer into it pointy end down, and distribute the garlic cloves, the pepper pods and the bay leaves as they fit. Fill the jars with okra and all until just below the point on the jar where the threaded rim begins, then pour in the hot brine and process at least 20 minutes in boiling water, as per the usual canning instructions.

This week, one of our dinners included a salad – of halved fresh garden tomatoes and sliced segments of home-pickled okra, adorned with crumbles of feta cheese and fresh parsley – again from the garden – and splashed with some olive oil. Alas, the olive is not home-grown from my own tree. That will take … a good few more decades.

Clay Pottery

Paint Your Own Clay Pottery

by Celia Hayes

In our never-ending search for interesting things to write about in, and around San Antonio, serendipity took a hand last week. We were actually heading for WingStop in Embassy Oaks for our monthly Red Hat gathering, but we were early. With some time to kill, we wandered into the nearby Clay Casa, a paint-it-yourself pottery studio – just to see what was on hand. I understand that the popularity of this as a hobby has never really gone out of style; in Victorian times it was called china painting, and was considered a suitable hobby for genteel young ladies, the kind of thing taught in finishing schools. From there, the urge to ornament pottery and china segued into the hands of professional artists and skilled amateurs in the Arts and Crafts movement – to art potteries like Rookwood, Van Briggle, Newcomb, Grueby, Rosewood and the rest. Vases, tiles and plates from these studios often show up on the Antiques Road Show and command quite astonishing prices.

Currently it seems that the china-painting hobby – like a great many other home-making hobbies – has come around again. I usually blame Martha Stewart for a lot of this busy-little-hands-at home stuff, but I do have to admit that in the right hands, and given a simple design and a degree of skill, the results can be quite pleasing. The Martha’s designs for dot-painted pottery are really quite attractive on their own, although I don’t think they could come anywhere near to redeeming the Clay Casa pottery blank that represented a box of fast-food fries. Not even Martha herself could do much with that.

But the Clay Casa isn’t just set up for single ambitious artists to work alone on their project; their focus is on group events for friends and congenial strangers: Sundays are a family fun day, and during the weeks of summer, they have an art project summer day camp for kids, regular classes in mosaic and fused glass, Girl Scouts can earn a patch … and Clay Casa can even host kid’s birthday parties. (There are actually a number of DIY art studios in San Antonio offering these kinds of activities, especially for kids. When my daughter was in high school, she used to work for a place called ArtWorks, in Carousel Court, in Alamo Heights. If it is still the same enterprise, they have two outlets now.)

We hung around for about half an hour, talking to the duty staff, and admiring some of the finished projects. Some of them, especially the fused-glass projects were quite beautiful, and reminded us of Howard Redmond’s glass bowls and ornaments … or at least, a fair start on the way to creating something along the lines of what he does, professionally. The work areas were large, well-lit and welcoming to customers and aspiring artists. When and if I can ever tear myself away from a hot computer, I might just come back and try my hand at pottery-painting. That dot-painted china from Martha Stewart did look very nice, and I am certain that I could do something like it, in white and blue.

Tis the Season of Giving

Tis The Season…

By Celia Hayes

To consider the 153,000th way in which I do not resemble Martha Stewart. Today, I am running a medium-warm iron over sheets of tissue paper, to take out the wrinkles and fold marks. Yes, indeedy, I reuse Christmas tissue paper, which was only slightly crushed and added to the top of a gift bag which we received last year. It’s only slightly used! It’s perfectly good.

I also re-use the heavy paper gift bags, as is our family custom. Some particularly sturdy ones have been circulating for a decade or so, and there are cardboard cartons and a large bag of Styrofoam popcorn in the garage. With a little forethought a sensible person with sufficient storage space need never be caught short of packing materials. Have you seen how much they charge for packing materials at the post office, the Container Store, or your friendly neighborhood accommodation address/UPS Drop/ Kinko-Klone? Why pay for things that your spendthrift friends and retail outlets are sending you, gratis? Most people will never notice, and those that do and hold it against you, those are people whom you are best off without. If you are related to them by marriage or economic bonds, my sympathies; unfortunately, I do not think offers “A Life” as a mail-order gift option, but at the rate things are going, this may be possible in the near future.

Number 1 or 2 in the ways in which I do resemble Martha Stewart? I am organized, and do my Christmas shopping early and all during the year; ever since I bought a Japanese porcelain tea set for my sister and stashed it under my bed in the barracks in Japan for six months until it came time in October to mail it home. This became a habit which sustains me yet.

We all know that gifts are obligatory for those we are bound to by ties of affection or duty. We know we will have to buy gifts; why not be sensible and organized, and purchase suitable somethings throughout the year, as we see them by chance and opportunity. Why be bludgeoned into buying any old thing at the last minute, or even… gasp (the last resort of a person who has no clue at all) dashing off a check dated December 25th. Even a gift certificate is better than for, in that it shows a grasp of which retail outlets the giftee prefers. It’s Christmas, which comes every year about this time; not like it’s a big surprise. But if you enjoy being packed into a mall or big-box store, jammed in cheek-by-jowl with a million other shoppers, attended by exhausted retail associates … whatever floats your boat. I shall think of you as I leisurely wrap my own Christmas presents in slightly used tissue paper.

You probably don’t want to hear about how the thrift store is the best place for baskets and picture frames… or that Half Price Books is the best place for books to build pretty Christmas baskets around. (Buy a basket at the local thrift store, and a cook book at an off-price outlet. Mark a nice recipe, and fill the basket with all the ingredients to make it. Package and ornament as your budget allows. When all else fails, buy people on your list something to eat. This does not fail. Number 3 in the way that I do resemble Martha Stewart.)

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to All!


Teashop at Bracken Village

Created Saturday, 09 January 2010 21:56

The Teashop in the Village

Yes, there is a tea-shop in the village; Bracken Village that is. A tea-shop, serving fresh-brewed pots of tea, and scones and all of that, in two Victorian-style rooms and on the veranda of a quaint little house, restored lovingly, and sitting among others of like, around a gazebo in a grove of oak trees, out on Nacogdoches Road, beyond 1604 in San Antonio. Originally it was a farmstead, known as the Wiederstein-Burkhardt home-place, a tiny house and a carriage barn, but over the last decade, other historic houses have been moved in, renovated and put to new use as shops and boutiques, an art studio, a salon/day spa and a gymnasium. There are garden plantings in between the houses; in the spring it all looks as gorgeous as the setting for a Disney movie set in a small American town. One place, “Country Gatherings” even holds regular classes in hooking old-fashioned woolen rugs, in what was once the hayloft of a quaint old barn.

Some of the houses are tiny – many are ornate, with deep, generous porches. All are historic, and from the local area. Not a few, including the Borgfeld House, which is in the process of reconstruction, are of a peculiar German style of half-timber construction called fachwork. The framework walls of the house, the openings for windows and doorways are made of heavy beams, fitted and braced – and then the interstices filled in with brick, or cut stone. Sometimes this was plastered over, entirely – or in the case of the Borgfeld house, covered with board siding.

There are, at present, two places to eat at Bracken Village – 23 Skadoo, which has Red Hat stuff galore, and does things like soups, salads and sandwiches, and then there is the tea-room, British Sensations, which is in the building which used to house another popular tea-room, Bawdsy Manor. British Sensations also has a stock of imported foods and candies – things like Marmite and the kind of steamed-pudding-inna-can that I remember fondly from a summer spent traveling in England and staying in Youth Hostels. You boil the can in a saucepan full of water for about twenty minutes, then open the can – and yes, this sounds odd, but it was very good. The chocolate puddings were particularly tasty.

The tea-room also offers staple British fare – you know, fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, and that sort of solid and hearty fare. Which when it is bad, is pretty awful – but when it is good, is very, very good – even sublime. We tried out the fish-n-chips, and the shepherd’s pie, mostly because we were eating at mid-afternoon, and that was all that was available after the lunch rush; oh, and it was good, too, not interminably held over a steam table or something. The fish was tasty, cooked in a crisp crust, and the chips were fresh, too. Shepherd’s pie can be dreadful, but it also was good; a particularly British variant on meat and potatoes, with the meat pie portion baked with a mashed-potato crust.

And the best part – it’s not even all that far away; just up Nacogdoches Road, past the bridge over Salado Creek.








All the Tea in India

Created Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:20

By Julia Hayden

All the Tea in India

Believe it or not, there are some food items that my family has a taste for, which just aren’t carried at the San Antonio HEB – bit of a shock to find that out, I know – but it’s true. Our very own local chain grocery store dynamo has a few of our personal food quirks left un-met. Some of those taste preferences were acquired through our eccentric family background and others through long service overseas, and so South Texas HEB can perhaps be forgiven for missing out. Since we have located a series of suitable subs – well, we won’t hold that against them.

The family legend has it that my very English Great-grandmother Alice carried around her own personal stock of tea – and when asking for hot tea in a restaurant, demanded that the staff supply her only with a tea-pot and a kettle of water – and said kettle had better still be bubbling when it was carried to her table. So, yes – tea is one of those absolutes. In my house, tea is made with bubble-boiling water, and loose tea leaves. As my Liverpudlian Granny Dodie used to say – it should be strong enough to trot a mouse over. (A completely unsanitary and perhaps revolting mental image – but still; a good cuppa must be strong, solid, powerful – the stuff that fueled the building of an empire. Tea bags are for sissies and people too lazy to bother with preparing a good pot of tea.)

And because we spent some wonderful years living in Greece, and my daughter had a TDY in Egypt – we like real yoghurt, that sort of yoghurt which is as sour and rich as sour cream, not adulterated with gelatin and disgustingly artificial fruit flavors. There were other foods that we had a yearning for – and even venues such as Sun Harvest Farms and Whole Foods just didn’t come close to meeting. Those yearnings were met, almost by accident, when we discovered an Asian grocery, in a cunning disguise.

From the outside, it looks like a completely ordinary gas station quickie-mart, on the corner of IH 35 East and Starcrest. It even has gas pumps outside, and a nearly defunct pay phone outside, adding to the illusion of being completely common-place, and even slightly sordid. A step inside – it still looks like a gas-station: cigarettes and lottery tickets, and all. But this is deceptive – farther inside, this is a cave of delights, stacked high with exotic good food of every sort; fresh or frozen, take-away, or in bulk; dairy, candy, dried, liquid . . . it’s all there, stacked up to the ceiling.

The only business establishment I have ever encountered with a better disguise was a money-exchange place in Itaewon, South Korea, which looked like a place selling exotic underwear. What I liked from the first moment I ventured inside the market, was how it smelled. It smelled pleasant and faintly perfumery; that would be the boxes of oriental incense.

All along the front windows are racks filled with twenty-pound sacks of rice, Jasmine and Basmanti rice, with it’s own faint sweet scent. And bags of black and herbal teas, of candy and spices, pastries, and frozen entrees and fresh vegetables . . . the owners and the regular staff are friendly and open, terribly helpful, happy to recommend this or that, explain what this spice is used in, or what brand is better than another. They recommended Wagh Bakri International blend tea – and sometime after Christmas I will get around to exploring some of their other food recommendations.