Thursday, October 11, 2012
Arbois, with its Fête du Biou (see blog, Sept. 6, 2011), isn’t the only place in France boasting a grape harvest festival. In fact, Parisians need travel no farther than Montmartre, which is an easy ride on the Métro. Right here in my own backyard, the first (or second) week-end in October has been celebrated with a Fête des Vendanges as long as I’ve lived in Montmartre. In fact, I just looked it up and it dates back to 1934 - although I’m not sure this kind of thing was allowed under the Third Reich years. 1934! That means this year is (pause while I pull out my calculator) ... the 79th year. 79 and still going strong.
Lately, each year has had a theme. For 2012 (Oct 10-14), it's "Festival of Delicious Delicacies", which is very general. Sometimes it's more specific, like in 2011 when it was "Montmartre and the Islands". Meaning their islands, the French West Indies. Which is why that year’s godparents were Jocelyn Béroard - from Martinique and lead singer in the zouk group Kassav - and Laurent Voulzy, composer and singer born right here in the neighborhood but of parents from Guadeloupe.
The increasing popularity of this Fête has brought about some fun events. For instance, on Sunday - just as some people are going to church - other people will be celebrating a Non-Demand in Marriage. If that sounds strange, it’s because you’re not familiar with a song by Georges Brassens, who was very big in the musical world that (still) is Montmartre: "J’ai l’honneur de ne pas te demander ta main, ne gravons pas nos noms au bas d’un parchemin", or poorly translated: "I have the honor of not asking for your hand, and we won’t sign our names at the bottom of a document". Yes, I know it doesn’t rhyme, but I have limited time to write this. This event takes place on the Place des Abbesses, directly across from St. Jean Church, where more serious Catholics are attending mass at that very moment. The Mayor of the 18th arrondissement, which includes Montmartre, unsolemnly pronounces you fiancés forever and a photo is taken to commemorate the event. This foolishness has been going on since 2007.
(see blog, June 18, 2011) but more and more every year. And as last year was placed under the sign of the West Indies, there was lots of dancing in the streets. Along with hip-hop creole, a concept that fascinates and perplexes me. French film director Claude Lelouch, of A Man and a Woman fame, hosted a performance of The Jungle Book at his Ciné 13 moviehouse-cum-theater. And all the other "pocket theaters" of the neighborhood programmed something musical as well.
Although I missed Montmartre's Fête des Vendanges this year in order to enjoy the Indian summer of Ann Arbor, I’m sure a good time was had by one and all.
For a video on the grape harvest, click on www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuoy-uS3zis
Monday, October 8, 2012
Museums in Paris usually schedule three or four shows a year, and there are several dozen museums in all. So there's always too much to see. But September is a light-exhibit time because there's a museum show hiatus around the end of the summer.
The Impressionisme et la Mode exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay opened on September 25th, to coincide with Paris Fashion Week (Sept 25-Oct 3). As if Orsay needed a hook to drag people in! The place is always packed, which is why it’s wise to go as early in the morning as possible. Let the doors open and that first line dwindle, then make your appearance.
Impressionism is light, and how it plays on surfaces, and how it's perceived by the eye. That’s how the Impressionists explained what it was they were trying to do: make light visible.
One subject artists have always painted to show the viewer light is fabrics. The sheen of satin and silk, the depth of velvet, the warm glow of pearls... Which is probably one reason why the Impressionists chose to paint so many women and the yards and yards of fabric that ladies of their era wore. You see it in all their canvases: Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Cassatt, Monet, Manet, Caillebotte and many others.
This show is every bit as much about the fashion side as about the Impressionism side of the equation. That becomes obvious as of the first room, where long cases are filled with turn-of-the-century dresses. Other cases are spread with fashion magazines from that period. If you’ve come for the artworks, you could just walk right through, but it would be a pity not to admire the handiwork - the detail - that went into the making of these dresses.
Beyond the fashion show décor, there are other rooms, other dresses, other Impressionist masterpieces. A few displays have matched a painting with a period dress very similar to the one worn by the artist’s model. In fact, sometimes you have to look very closely to find the differences. Those are perhaps the most interesting.There’s even one room with men’s fashion, in case that should interest the few gentlemen who deigned to accompany their ladies to this feminine exhibit.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Musée d’Orsay with friends, and we weren’t allowed in the old ballroom dating from the time when this was a working railroad station complete with a hotel and a restaurant and facilities for special events. It turns out the ballroom was being set up as part of this exhibit, instead of just sitting bare in its lost splendor. The larger artworks have been put here, and display cases with dresses that revolve on turntables, like very slow waltzing ladies. As all the previous rooms were small and cramped with people and displays, it's a breath of fresh air to reach this vast ballroom, with its towering, ornate ceiling.A fitting finish to a show that reflects the past splendor of the Belle Epoque, when women glided elegantly into history. Before a whole new world of wars swallowed them up forever.
et la mode
Until Jan. 20, 2013
Open Tues-Sun 9:30 - 6
and until 9:45 pm
Tuesdays & holidays
Tickets: € 12 & 9.50
Thursday, October 4, 2012
The TV "guide" I read in France had a special insert a few weeks ago. It was dedicated to a new museum-within-a-museum: the Louvre’s brand new Department of the Arts of Islam.
Yes, relations are indeed touch-and-go between The West and many Arab countries right now. But this project has been on-going for years. Then-President Jacques Chirac launched the idea in October of 2002. In July 2008 the first stone was ceremonially set by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy. And in mid-September of this year, new President François Hollande inaugurated the completed complex. So this is a project that has spanned three presidencies.
All this to say that I thought it deserved a look. And as the painters got finished early, and it wasn’t raining yet, that’s exactly what I did.
Pressed for space, the Louvre decided to build under one of its two small courtyards, blind areas totally surrounded by wings already chock-a-block with artworks. The architects, Frenchman Rudy Ricciotti from Marseille and Italian Mario Bellini, came up with an amazing blueprint that some have dubbed "The Dune", to give it a catchy nickname like "The Pyramid". This "dune" barely emerges from the cobblestones of the Cour Visconti and remains a respectable distance from the walls of the venerable Louvre, making it a world unto itself.
And therein lay the problem. Excavating to a depth of 12 m (40 ft) meant digging down below the water table of the nearby Seine, and without disturbing the structure of the Louvre... or the thousands of visitors that course through its veins daily. And then there was the small problem of removing all that dirt down one single hallway only 2.7 m (9 ft) wide... and which emptied smack into the heavy traffic of a major street along the Seine! Ricciotti was especially wary of the underground infrastructures, for which no one had drawings or maps: "I was not reassured, digging around under the foundations of the old palace."
The top level, which is nonetheless underground, is a steel and glass encasement measuring 1,000 m2 (almost 11,000 square feet). For maximum effect, the architects decided to leave space between this "jewelry case" and the hard stone walls of the other wings of the Louvre. After entering from the dark hallway of the old wing, the luminosity is striking, even on a rainy day such as this. Stretching overhead is a semi-transparent ceiling that is actually state-of-the-art undulating metallic gold mesh, made to make you feel as if you were inside a desert nomad’s tent. It provides protection from sunlight for the older collections grouped on this level and makes for better lighting than any other solution would have. Plus it’s way more innovative.
Downstairs, on the bottom level, the walls are a dark cavernous grey - after all, you’re doubly underground - but the lighting is amazing. Theatrical. It brings out the sparkle of the bronzes, highlights the turquoise ceramics and even warms the terra cottas. A chatty museum guard told me that the lighting experts - mostly young - had spent weeks and weeks studying every angle and every reflection before deciding on a final lighting plan.
Borrowing again from that brochure, the earliest objects in the Louvre’s collection date from the French Revolution, when the palace was renamed the Central Art Museum (how poetic!) and its artworks had been confiscated from the royals. But most of the objects on display arrived much later, donated by the art lovers and historians of the late 1800s. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs collection, on the other hand, was made up largely of useful objects used as production models during the Age of Industrial Arts. From a chronological viewpoint, the Louvre specialized in medieval objects while the Arts Déco focused on the great Islamic empires. And that is why the two are so complementary.
There’s a huge area covered with the mosaic floors of St. Christopher’s Church in Lebanon, which was built in 575 A.D. On the neighboring wall are more mosaic artworks, including a 5th century "Young boy playing with snakes" from Syria or Lebanon. Why the boy was playing with snakes I don’t know, and I doubt if his parents knew he was doing it (unless he was actually one of those carny acts you still see in the souks of Morocco), but it makes for a beautiful piece of art.
There are colorful tiled murals on the far wall, with a nearby collection of rugs and textiles on one side and another collection of doors on the other. One door from 15th c Spain bears an inscription from St. John, which only goes to show how tolerantly the three major religions - Muslim, Christian and Jewish - co-existed at that place and time.
But the cherry on the cake, for me at least, is the vestibule entrance of a home in Cairo from the year 1475 during the Mamlouk period. If this is the mere entry, what must the other rooms have been like!Once you’ve toured both floors, there are passageways on the lower level from the Arts of Islam collection directly to the Greek Antiquities wing as well as the Coptic Egypt rooms, which is a fitting configuration if you look at a world map.
It was interesting to see the older pieces because they seem to predate the interdiction of representing God’s creatures, whether human or animal. There are plenty of both, but there is also plenty of artwork that is pure geometry, or even artistic representations of written texts, presumably from the Koran.
But I do hope that visitors from the Islamic world will also take this collection into their hearts. It is extraordinarily rich and varied, a source of beauty and pride, and deserves being seen by everyone, regardless of their religion or culture.
but headphones in other languages are also available.
And there are several audiovisual displays on both levels and frequent maps showing the extent of the various Islamic empires.
|Bronze fountainhead, Spain, 12th-13th c|
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
I don’t know what Gustave Eiffel had in mind when he built his tower, aside from creating something totally new, something that had never been done before. He probably believed it would launch a whole new style of building, a whole new approach to architecture. He might even have thought that it would make him immortal.
But did he ever dream that it would one day become the very image of Paris?
I don’t think so.And I’ll tell you why. Because while it was being built, the Parisian artists and press hated it! They called it an "ink stain on the entire city", a "giant smokestack" that would "humiliate" all the other monuments. Paul Verlaine poetically called it "the skeleton of a belfry" and another voice went even further, calling it "a suppository full of holes"!
In spite of that, and once it was finished, it became an instant hit with the public. Since its inauguration, over 200 million people have paid to go up to one of the Eiffel Tower’s three levels: 7.1 million in 2011 alone, selling more tickets than any other monument in the world.
But its life hasn’t always been a bowl of cherries. Built in 2 years, 2 months and 5 days for the 1889 World Fair, by 300 acrobatic riveters (to the tune of 2½ million rivets!), it was almost demolished in 1909 when its original 20-year concession ended. It was saved in extremis by its radio aerial, which became strategic for the French army during World War I. (One message intercepted led to the arrest of Mata Hari as a spy.) It was also used as a relay point for telephones in their early days, and in 1903 a telegraph antenna was added. Because of all these added features, the tower’s existence was prolonged in 1920, for 70 years. During those years, it has served as a radio and later a television transmission tower, as well as a weather observation station.
On the first floor, there’s a museum and a post office where you can get a special postmark for your postcards. On the second floor is the Jules Verne restaurant, very expensive but great food... and what a view! You have to change to the small central elevator to reach the third floor, where you can see a wax Gustave Eiffel welcoming a wax Thomas Edison to his office in the sky. There used to be a TV studio there, and some poor victim (probably the most recent recruit) had to walk up all those steps every morning, before the elevators were running, to start the transmitter up, although I’m sure you’ll be happy to know it’s now automated. Hazing the new recruit now just means sending them out on the café run.By the way, the record for climbing those 1,665 steps? 8 minutes and 45 seconds! And that should be an Olympic record if ever there was one.
A few factoids:
Its weight is also amazing: a mere 7,000 metric tons, which is actually less than the weight of the cylinder of air that surrounds it. And as for how heavy it would feel if it stood on your toe, its load is equal to that of someone sitting in a chair.
Similar to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower has to be repainted often - once every 7 years - and that takes 50 tons of paint.
When it was redecorated for the supposedly-apocalyptic Y2K, twenty mountain climbers were hired to scramble back and forth across its entire surface to install 20,000 flashing lights. It took them 3 months. Then again, in 2003, twenty-five more (or maybe some of the same) climbed back up to change those old bulbs for a newer, better variety, and it took them five months to install them by hand, one by one. Those bulbs were said to be good for 10 years, so tune in next June to see if there’ll be a repeat performance.
The two pillars on the Seine side of the tower extend down below the level of the river. In fact the workers building them had to work in watertight metal caissons into which compressed air was injected to hold back the water. Not ideal working conditions. The feet of the Tower were, however, underwater in 1910, when ice floes in the Seine downriver from Paris created a sort of dam and the water backed up and overran the riverbanks. People were being rowed to safety all up and down the river.
But in addition to the humdrum, same-old-same-old of milling tourists and flashing cameras, there have been moments of folly and tragedy in the life of the Tower.
For instance, in 1912, the inventor of the articulated wing tried to become a human Icarus by putting a pair on and jumping from the first level... to his death. He left behind a grieving family, and a 27-cm (11") deep crater.
After the greyness of World War II, a circus decided to brighten up 1948 by walking its elephant up the steps to the first floor. The problem then became to coax it back down!
Within my lifetime - in 1964 - came the only suicide attempt to "fail" (out of 380), when the jumper landed on the roof of a car and lived to tell about it.
And in 1984, two Brits snuck up to the third level, donned parachutes and jumped over the edge, providing an extra thrill for those below waiting hours in line for the elevator.
But best of all, perhaps, is 1925, when a certain Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower to a scrap metal merchant. The con man had read all the articles about the possible dismantling of the tower (see above), so he decided to make up some phony documents on the letterhead of the Post and Telegraph Ministry which "owned" the tower. He invited the five largest scrap metal companies to the sumptuous Hotel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. To keep the affair quiet, he told them that the only people who knew of this project were the President, the head of the Ministry and two other high ministerial officials. Lustig then posed as one of those two officials (the other being dapper Dan Collins), drove them to the tower in a limousine and took them on a tour, after which the most credible of them wrote him a check for one quarter of the total amount as an advance. Lustig cashed it and hopped on the train for Austria.
Unfortunately for him, his greed drove him to return to Paris for an encore. But this time the police were on the case. Lustig still managed to get away and jump on a boat to New York. Whether he then tried to sell the Brooklyn Bridge or not, I don’t know, but you can read all about it in a book called The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by James F. Johnson and Floyd Miller.
All the photos in this article are mine except, of course, for
the historic ones of the Paris flooding.
Monday, October 1, 2012
My father was a hunter. Our freezer was well-stocked with rabbit and pheasant. Plus the occasional duck (rare) or deer (not quite as rare). As a matter of fact, when I was a child, for some reason I also ate squirrel. Why he hunted squirrel, I have no idea.
I remember I always hated eating these animals. Not because I didn’t like the taste (and yes, squirrel does have a nutty flavor); it was all really good. Or because of Bambi and Thumper; I didn’t connect them with what I saw in my plate. But I hated the possibility of crunching down on a piece of buckshot... or whatever ammo it was that sometimes slipped past the vigilant eye of my mother, the cook, until it made its stealthy presence felt with tooth-breaking potential. Of course, it did provide excellent training for finding the ceramic fève hidden in those French Epiphany cakes known as galettes.
But I digress.Years ago, a Belgian friend drove me from Paris to Brussels via the long route, which wound its way through the Ardennes forest. You still had to have passports then to cross borders. At dusk we drove through the darkening forest and suddenly there was a tiny hut in the middle of nowhere, a light shining through its one window. Inside were two or three border patrol agents playing cards. They were not amused at being interrupted, which probably happened once in a blue moon, as tourists don’t take this route and contrabanders give all border posts a wide berth. But they finally found the border stamp for my passport, and we went on our way, into Belgium.
The Ardennes are a beautiful region, but Americans rarely go there. Not unless they’re interested in the Battle of the Bulge, the coldest, deadliest days of the March to Berlin by the Allied Army during World War II. And where my friend and I were heading for dinner and an overnight stop was in the heart of that region, near Bastogne, in La Roche-en-Ardenne. As this was in late October, hunting season had already provided restaurants in the region with game of both the furry and feathered sort. And so it was there that I first fell in love with sauce grand veneur, or huntsman’s sauce.In researching my October recipe, I found that this sauce could be used with bison as well, which may be more readily available than venison in some parts of the United States. I also found a recipe that used sauce grand veneur with boar, so you might even be able to use it with a pork roast if you really need something much more familiar. But in any case, it’s a festive dish for a special occasion.
P.S. This is a variation on Chef Raymond Oliver’s recipe. I’ve chosen to leave out the "blood" ingredient, as it probably isn’t available to most.
* * *
The 4-lb saddle of venison needs to marinate for 24 hours, so be sure to plan backwards in time.
- 2 onions, sliced
- 2 carrots, sliced
- 6 peppercorns
- 4 whole cloves
- 4 shallots, minced
- 2 parsley sprigs
- ½ t dried thyme
- 1 t dried rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- a little coarse salt
- 2 c dry red wine
- 2 T cognac
After you take the venison out of the marinade, keep it to be added to the sauce poivrade, which is the next step.
Sauce poivrade:(makes about 2 ½ c)
- 1 t vegetable or olive oil
- 2 T butter
- 1 carrot, thinly sliced
- 1 medium-sized onion, thinly sliced
- 1 parsley sprig
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ t dried thyme
- 1 T tomato paste
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- pinch of salt
- 6 peppercorns, crushed
- ½ c wine vinegar
- 1 t flour
- 1 t cornstarch
- ½ c dry red wine
- 2 c veal stock
- 2 T cognac
You can make this the previous day and keep it in the refrigerator. But be sure to warm it thoroughly before adding it in with the rest.
Now let’s bring it all together, with the other ingredients:
- 3 T peanut oil
- 3 T butter
- 4 lb saddle of venison (or boar, or even pork roast, with as much fat as possible removed)
- 1 c crème fraîche or heavy cream
- 2 T red currant jelly
- 2 c sauce poivrade, thoroughly heated
- 1 t cornstarch
- 3 T cognac
- Strain the marinade and add it to the heated sauce poivrade. Reduce over high heat to about half its quantity.
- Just before serving time, return the sauce poivrade to a boil. Mix the cornstarch into the cognac thoroughly, then add it in, along with the red currant jelly and heavy cream. Stir with a wooden spoon and simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly.
- Carve the meat, coat it with the sauce grand veneur, pouring any extra into a gravyboat. Serve with puree of chestnuts. Or as an alternative, pureed celery root or even mashed potatoes.
Accompany with a full-bodied red wine, preferably a burgundy, or perhaps a cahors.