Saturday, June 29, 2013

On the Road: St. Malo on Brittany's Côte d'Armor

The port of St. Malo, Brittany
It’s Thursday, and I’m off on a road trip.  My old friends Nadia and Christian have moved from the south to a house in Brittany, Christian’s ancestral land.  St. Malo on the north coast, to be exact.  The home town of Jacques Cartier, a name which should ring a bell with North Americans.  Hopefully, at least.
   The fastest way to get there?  By train!  Paris has six train stations, each dispatching trains in a different direction. Mine leaves from the Gare Montparnasse, totally across town from Montmartre.  Historically, the Montparnasse neighborhood was rife with crêperies - the staple food of Brittany - and with hotels and restaurants with Breton names.  All because when people left their cherished but impoverished Brittany behind to look for work in Paris, they got off the train filled with Nostalgia for Home and never went any farther.  And so the neighborhood around the train station became known as Petite Bretagne, Little Brittany.
     The Gare Montparnasse is also where Nazi General von Choltitz, Germany’s military governor of Paris, surrendered to French General. Philippe Leclerc on August 25, 1944, after refusing to carry out Hitler’s order to destroy the city: “Is Paris Burning?”  But you probably will know it better as the station that was depicted in Martin Scorsese’s movie Hugo.  That was the old station, torn down in 1969, which is also famous for the Train That Didn’t Stop (1895), so no, that wasn’t something Scorsese thought up for his movie.  It really happened.
     Thanks to France’s TGV super-fast trains, the 417-km (260-mile) trip takes only about 3 hours, at a top speed of 200 mph.  The trip is non-stop and Christian picks me up at the station and whisks me back to a great lunch.  After that, we go down to the port to see his sailboat, one of the main reasons he moved here.  This is a paradise for the sea-inclined, but with tides and winds and rocky shallows that are a challenge to even the best sailors.

Friday here in the St. Servan area of greater St. Malo is market day, so Nadia and I walk over to check out the goods.  She’s hosting a dinner tomorrow, and she’s very particular about what she serves her friends.  She finds the covered market calm today, and there are indeed quite a few stalls closed, but there’s enough buzz to keep me interested while she inspects the produce.  I have my eye on the lobsters - my particular favorite - but I’m not the one drawing up the menu.  We end up buying enough fruit and vegetables, meat and cheese to feed an army, and our baskets are so full that we radio Christian for back-up, i.e. a ride home.  Which is probably a good thing because it starts to rain.
     After lunch, and in spite of the showers, Nadia drives the two of us over to visit Le Petit Manoir, a small working farm owned and operated by a high-school friend of hers and her husband and son.  They grow non-GMO wheat and raise no-hormones no-antibiotics dairy cows.  They also rent part of their farm house to visitors, most of whom have come to see Mont Saint Michel over there on the horizon.  Annick and Jean (John) are warm people, he bubbling over with energy, she a quieter soul full of hospitality.  We spend a few hours catching up, over cookies from the Mont Saint Michel bakery nearby and freshly pressed apple juice from orchards down the road.  Jean proudly shows us the new digs upstairs:  the fusty old two rooms, each with bath, have been transformed into an airy apartment with living room, kitchen and bath plus two bedrooms up a spiral staircase in what was once an inaccessible attic. It’s so beautiful I want to stay, especially with the view of Mont Saint Michel beyond the wheat field.  But it’s back to Saint Malo in time to change for dinner intra-muros.
     In case you don’t know what that means, it means that St. Malo - being a port right across from England, France’s “hereditary enemy” - is a walled city.  And that has been handy throughout its history.  Unfortunately, it also was handy for the Nazis when they occupied France and so the town was heavily destroyed at the end of World War II.  Great care was taken to build the burnt-out ruins back as close to what they had been as possible... plus mid-20th century modern conveniences. This evening’s party is in the 17th century St. Francis Convent, which morphed into barracks after the French Revolution.  The ceilings are high and their windows don’t look directly into another apartment, a claustrophobic situation that pervades much of the housing inside the walls.  The apartment’s antiques and modern art mix together joyfully, the conversation is sprightly, the antipasti lead into a pasta meal... after which we decide to go out for coffee.  Tonight was supposed to be the Fête de la Musique tonight, but as city hall postponed the music festivities to Sunday because of forecast storms, we only happen upon two groups in our wanderings through the Old Town.  One is a young woman singing love songs to Jesus in a Top Ten voice, the other is a quartet whose lead singer insisted on putting the mike on “Stun” in spite of the reverberations off the walls of the narrow street.  We leave him serenading a group of French people who have decided to do a line dance.  The Univers Café across from the castle proves much quieter and we end up with a nightcap, then walk back through the still busy streets, arm in arm

Saturday is mostly spent in the kitchen prepping the dinner for ten guests.  It’s chilly and grey and blustery in the garden, but with occasional dry periods that last up to, oh, half an hour.  A good time for curling up with a good book, and for flowering Nadia’s mother’s grave.  French cemeteries are grim things at the best of times, all stone tombs and gravel walks.  But the roses from her garden seem to catch what little light there is.  That evening the guests keep the spirit gay with laughter and conversations in both French and English.  By the end of the meal, left-overs are rare and quite a few bottles of wine have been dealt with.  Everyone goes home the very best of friends.
     By the time Sunday rolls around, I need a rest from my long week-end.  Nadia and Christian have more friends than you could shake a bâton at, and visiting them always involves considerable food and drink.  Nadia fixes me a sandwich for the train, complete with a baggie of cherry tomatoes and a bottle of water, and sends me off with a kiss.  Christian drives me to the station where I get on another TGV train back to Paris, via Rennes and Laval.  All of western France seems to be under cloudy skies but luckily it doesn’t rain until I make it safe and dry back to Montmartre.  The garden is happy to see me, even if it doesn’t need to be watered.  Mother Nature has seen to that for me.  Many times, judging by how wet everything is.
     Hopefully next week’s trip to Biarritz will be sunnier.  After all, it is almost in Spain.

Monday, June 24, 2013

People in the Neighborhood: Le Rémouleur

The side street my building is on is a quiet one.  No through traffic.  My courtyard is quieter still. The walls of the front building absorb the noise of passersby.  All you hear is birdsong...  and occasional conversations or music from upstairs, if it’s warm and the windows are open.
     So it got my attention when I heard the bell ringing.
     At first, I thought it was the church.  But it wasn’t the right note or the right rhythm... and the wind wasn’t coming from the right direction.  Then I thought it might be on the TV.
     And then I realized what it was:  the rémouleur, the knife sharpener.

Wallace Fountain, pl Emile Goudeaux
In the old days, there were many street vendors in Paris.  One of the first to disappear was the water seller, run out of business when a certain Englishman, Lord Wallace, who loved Paris, bequeathed the city the money to build drinking fountains.
Vitrier, by Willy Ronis
     There were also vitriers who walked the streets of Paris with a frame strapped to their back, and on it were all different sizes of panes of glass.  The vitrier would shout out “veee-treee-eeeehhh” as he went, and if you had a cracked window, you’d shout down to him and he’d walk up the steps to your apartment - I was four floors up - still with the frame and panes strapped to his back.  He’d measure the window, knock out the old pane and putty in a new one, complete with those tiny nails to hold it in place.  He’d cut a pane to size if he didn’t have one that fit. Sometimes you’d give him a glass of wine with his pay, or just a glass of water, depending.
     But the vitrier announced himself with his lungs.  The rémouleur always rings a bell as he walks.  Like the Good Humor Man of my youth (minus the ice cream).  I hadn’t heard one for years and years.

As my knives are a bit dull and I’m not too handy with the whetstone, the bell is a welcome sound.  I jump into my shoes and run out to the street.  But no rémouleur anywhere.  Not to the left nor to the right.  And no more bell.
     Just as I’m ready to give up, it starts again.  And then he comes around the corner at the end of the street.  A real rémouleur.
     He stops in front of Number 12, rings his bell and waits.  Then rings and waits again.  But no windows open.  No doors.  Nothing.
     Then he sees me.  And he pushes his little cart down the cobbled street and parks it at my curb.
     “Haven’t seen one of you in ages,” I comment.
     “There aren’t many of us left,” he replies, matter-of-factly.
     “Not many vitriers either,” I add.
     “No, the last one retired at the end of the year.”  All these street people have known each other for ages, walked the same routes, crisscrossed the same neighborhood.  “You have knives to sharpen?  Or scissors?”
     He waits patiently while I zip back to the apartment to gather up the knives that need his ministrations.
     As he grinds them, he talks in spurts.
     “I’m 67,” he informs me.  “I’ve been sharpening knives and scissors for 50 years.  And my parents before me.”  My imagination visualizes generations of rémouleurs stretching back well into the 19th century, pushing the same timeless cart but dressed in different styles of clothing.  He says he has no intention of stopping, but may have to if his legs give out.  Or else he’ll just slump over his cart one day.
     "How often do you come by?" I ask
     “I have my customers,” he smiles as he tests the knife’s sharpness on his little finger, then hangs it on the frame of his cart.  Based on his pause in front of Number 12, I’d say he keeps a mental list of each and every building he’s sharpened something for.  Now I’ll be on his list.  One of his stops next time.
     Tourists walk by, snapping photos of him, with or without his permission.  But then so do I (after asking if he minded).  Who knows how long this street scene will be around to witness, how long this page of history will survive?
      One by one, the knives take their place in one of the cart’s slits.  When all six are honed to his finger’s satisfaction, he says, “That’ll be 54 euros”.
     Eight euros a knife.  A store would ask more.  But then, they have accountants to pay.  For all I know, the taxman may not even realize my rémouleur is still working.  Maybe he doesn’t hear the bell as it passes through the streets.
     “I’ll be back in September,” he announces.  “No sense coming back before that.”
     Then he smiles, doffs an imaginary cap, and sets off down the street, ringing and walking, walking and ringing, until he disappears around the corner.
     But I can still hear the echo of his bell.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Out and About: Events/Exhibits: Macchiaioli

Start your visit to the Orangerie by a walk around outside,
these statues and others are by August Rodin
Boudin, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, Morisot, Pissarro...  Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good on the French Impressionists.  Then an Italian friend in Paris asked me if I’d seen the show at the Orangerie:  The Macchiaioli.
     Not only had I never heard of them, I couldn’t even pronounce it.  So in case you’re not any more gifted than I am, I’ll help you out.  It’s pronounced “mock-ee-aye-oh-lee”.
     My friend explained that they were the Italian Impressionists, and that the name comes from the word “macchia” meaning “stain” or “blot”.  (It’s easier in French because “tache” means both.)  It also means a wild forest of the Mediterranean variety.  So the inference was two-fold:  that the Usual Rules didn’t hold, as they don’t for the trees and plants that grow wild, and that the people and things represented were often reduced to alternating patches of color and chiaroscuro.
     The Macchiaioli period ran from 1850 to 1874, a period marked in Italy by the political upheaval of Garibaldi and Italian Unification.  French Impressionism began later with Monet’s sunrise in 1872, although his precursor, Boudin (see June 5, 2013), held his first exhibit in 1859.  So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that they were more or less contemporaries.  And both were a reaction against the neoclassicism and romanticism of their time.
     Interestingly enough, Macchiaoli in Italy was initially used as a term of ridicule, as was the term Impressionist in France.  When Monet painted and exposed his “Impression, Sunrise”, a critic decreed that it wasn’t a painting at all, merely an impression, and “less finished than wallpaper”.  Neither art movement was taken seriously.

Upon entering the exhibit you’re greeted by two portraits of art critic Diego Martelli, a round-cheeked, cheerful-looking man who became the patron of the movement and housed the artists willingly at his country home in Tuscany, the center of the Macchiaioli movement.  Around the corner from Martelli’s portraits, the first paintings demonstrate more of a gradual slide out of romanticism, with little that’s new, except perhaps the vividness of the sky and its light.
     Gradually the approach changes, lines blur and light comes front and center.  Landscapes and scenes of rural life were main themes of this movement.  One particular canvas depicts a washer woman viewed from behind.  She is bent over her work and the mastery of the folds in her ordinary clothing are nothing short of genius.  Then I learned it was by a Frenchman, Paul Guigou, and it was there because of the similarity in subject and approach to light.  I’m not sure that’s a valid reason, but it was beautiful to see.
     Across from it was a horizontal landscape, a shape of canvas the Macchiaioli used often.  It was by Raggaello Sernesi and called “Romito Point seen from Castiglioncello”.  Rocks and grass divided the cliff scene diagonally, with Romito Point in the background and a cobalt blue sea between them.  You had the impression that if you only stood on your tiptoes you would see what was just over that cliff... a beach perhaps, and maybe even swimmers.
   In the next room was another horizontal canvas of a couple sitting on the banks of a river, relaxing in the shade of large trees.  A boat is tied up at the bend in the background.  It looks for all the world like the Vienne River bank in Chinon.  The man is sitting with his legs over the wall, fishing; the woman is sitting behind him, waiting patiently.  It’s called “The Honeymoon” although the only thing romantic about this couple is that she has managed to take his hand that’s not holding the fishing pole.  Whether that is the conception of marriage all’italiana in 1862, or only artist Telemaco Signorini’s impression of it I can’t tell you.
   The War Room was my least favorite because war is bad for children and other living things, as we said during Vietnam.  I preferred the Macchiaioli’s other pet topics:  rural and domestic life.  But even among the saber-rattling and carnage of this room, I found two canvases that attracted my eye.  One by Giovanni Fattori is of a group of soldiers.  They stand, paired off by twos, packs on their back, awaiting orders from their chief, the only person looking out from the canvas   The other painting was the famous “Sentinel” by Giovanni Fattori, with its stark diagonal lines, darkly oppressive sky and three horsemen, one standing guard all alone.  The harshest of all the paintings was Giovanni Fattori’s soldier being dragged across a bleak countryside.  The sky is slate grey, all grass is gone and all the trees have been cut down.  The soldier’s foot is caught in the stirrup and we don’t know if he’s dead or dying, but his fingers rake the ground, leaving a trail of gouges and blood.  To me, it embodies the senselessness of war, even though the Macchiaioli artists painted such canvases as their contribution to their country’s effort toward unification.  To prove it, a portrait of Garibaldi by Silvestro Lega keeps watch just opposite.
     The last room is mainly portraits.  One in particular - “Portrait of Nerina Badioli” by Antonio Puccinelli - could be a movie star of the 1930s or 40s rather than the 1860s.  Another might be Oscar Wilde, although the title says it’s just “a young man”.  In spite of its loud wallpaper background, my favorite was by Giovanni Boldini... quite compelling for the sadly brooding eyes of model Mary Donegati.
     And then, just before the exit, a montage of scenes from Visconti’s “Senso” loops constantly across the entire end wall.  Why?  Because the story takes place during the Macchiaioli period and the struggle for Italian Unification (Risorgimento), neatly tying together two essential threads of the show.

The exhibit is downstairs, below Monet’s Water Lilies rooms, and shares the space with the museum’s permanent exhibit - which is well worth a trip in and of itself.

Until July 22, 2013

L’Orangerie:  The Macchiaioli

Jardin des Tuileries
Paris, 1er
Métro:  Concorde
01 44 77 80 07


Daily 9 to 6, except Tuesdays, May 1,
 Dec. 25 and the morning of July 14

Entrance: 7.5€ & 5 €
Free for visitors under 18 and
for all the first Sunday of the month

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Sunday Morning

It’s Sunday.  Again.  And that means shopping.
     Why Sunday in particular?  Because on Monday everything’s closed.  The supermarket, the smaller shops, even most of the restaurants.  So if you’re hungry and you’ve run low on (fill in the blank), you better get it on Sunday or you’re in trouble.  And Sunday morning at that, because shops close around 1 pm and then you’re left high-and-dry until Tuesday.
     As I have no more meat and no more bread and no more vegetables (except for a few of those amazing tiny Bonnotte potatoes from the island of Noirmoutier) and no more fruit and no more cheese... Well, you get the idea.
      So I take my money and my shopping bag and my camera - rarely without it - and head out.

Just around the corner and across the square, I see a very tall father trying to help his son take his first steps on his own.  That’s not easy in Montmartre, where everything is up and down.  Add to that uneven cobblestones and steps.  A child who’s just learning to walk has his work cut out for him.  Especially if everything he sees is wonderment in its newness.  The child takes two steps and points to something to the right, then two more steps and points to something to the left.  A pigeon?  Confetti from yesterday’s carnival?  His father has to bend way over and take his hand before he topples off a curb.
     Down the hill a block I look up to marvel at the blue of the sky - something that’s been rare here for months.  I spot a couple enjoying a late breakfast on their tiny terrace perched high above the street.  From there they have a magnificent view of Paris, which is guaranteed to make your croissant and café taste even better.
     As I round the corner, there’s the ginger cat, taking a nap on a delivery of Orangina.  Almost every small food shop I know that’s run by North Africans - usually Tunisians, and usually from Djerba - has a cat to catch any mice that may wander in from the underbelly of Montmartre.  The owner told me this one’s been known to scratch people who pet him, but so far I’ve been safe.  Must have learned something from the string of cats I’ve inherited over the years.
      Across from the cat, La Bascule is just starting to set up for the brunch crowd.  “Brunch”:   a word that’s becoming very popular in Paris.  The couple on the terrace are having theirs in the quiet of their own home.  Not for them, this café which becomes packed and noisy until well past nightfall.  I’m sure the ginger cat goes inside when the crowd starts to arrive.
     At the foot of the street stands a building that has always fascinated me.  It probably dates from the 1920s and must have been built by a patron of the arts, because it definitely wasn’t built as a rent magnet.  There’s a shop on the ground floor and an apartment just above which usually comes with the shop, definitely cutting travel time to work.  All the rest is artist’s studios, and few artists could splurge on rent.  In spite of the building being only one large room wide, these ceilings tower two stories high - enough height to accommodate a monumental canvas.  There are two studios, one on top of the other.  And at the very top, a shorter studio for a more impoverished artist, but still with its wall of windows.  The reason I know these are artist’s studios is that the windows are facing north... and because it’s Montmartre, the haven of artists:  Jongkind and Pissarro first, followed by Renoir, Degas and Monet, then joined by van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Derain, Valadon, Utrillo, Modigliano... and Picasso until he deserted the hill to move across town to Montparnasse.
     I drop by the butcher’s to buy a veal chop.  As they prepare it for me, chopping it with noisy gusto off of a whole row of ribs, they make small talk, asking me what I’m cooking to go with it.  That might be nosy in other countries, but this is France and in a way they’re sizing me up to see what kind of culinary stuff I’m made of, and whether it’s The Right Stuff.  If it is, you move up a notch in their esteem and they become even more friendly.  All part of the initiation process.
   On the way to the green grocer, I pass a man begging.  He’s young and has two little girls with him.  As it’s the week-end, that may be because he has no one to babysit them. Or he could have just borrowed some children to gain Pity Points, which is common.  But as the girls aren’t being made to beg, just to behave in spite of their obvious boredom, it’s probably the former.  At the grocer’s, I buy the fruit and vegetables I need for a few days... and get a small basket of strawberries that I take back to the girls.  The young man looks a bit confused.
     That leaves only the cheese shop.  It changed hands this past winter, and everyone wondered whether the cheeses were going to be as good as before, and the staff as friendly.  Well, the cheeses are a bit different, it’s true, but of the highest quality... and a wide variety.  The staff is quite friendly and very knowledgeable, although some ladies among the customers miss the cute young man with the long hair.  I select a fourme marinated in muscat wine (which turns out to be delicious!) and a basque goat cheese dusted with rusty-red paprika and piment d’espalette so it’s sure to have some zing to it.
     On the corner, just before the street starts its gymnastic climb to my street, the Sunday Morning Concert is under way.  Every group seems to have its corner or its square as well as its schedule.  If it’s Sunday morning and it’s the Abbesses bus stop, it must be the New Orleans jazz quintet.  They play and sell their CDs and advertise for gigs, much to the enjoyment of all, especially the youngest of their audience.  Dancing has even been known to ensue.

     When I reach the top of the steep hill, I drop into Christophe's bakery to pick up a baguette.  Through his window, I spot a young lady sitting on the steps to the square.  She was already there when I set out, and her book seems to be much further along in its reading.  I wonder who she’s waiting for and why he/she/they are keeping her waiting.
     A nod to the accordionist in passing and I’m home.

And that’s what it’s like to go shopping in my neighborhood.  It involves food, of course.  But also a whole way of life, with its cast of characters

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Out and About (Events/Exhibits) - Marc Chagall

Musée du Luxembourg
When discussing art, there’s an old expression:  “I’m no expert, but I know what I like”.  Personally, I feel that, in things artistic, it’s difficult to like something if you don’t understand it.  Maybe you don’t have to be an expert, but it helps to understand what you’re looking at.
     Chagall has always been a mystery to me.  Which may be why I’ve never particularly enjoyed his paintings.  But when the Musée du Luxembourg hosts a retrospective of his works, it seemed normal to give it a try.

Bela & Ida à la fenêtre
This exhibit is chronological, opening with some early works that focus on his beloved wife Bella.  Chagall’s later style isn’t obvious in them yet, but his mastery is.  My favorite of these few was a portrait of Bella and their newborn daughter Ida at a window overlooking the fields of what I’m assuming is his native - and also beloved - Russia.  It’s somewhat reminiscent of a subtler Klimt, especially in the placement of Bella’s head, or a pre-cubist Picasso.
Daphnis & Chloé
     Then you turn a corner and you find yourself in a totally different world.  War has raised its ugly head, as it did throughout Chagall’s life:  World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II.  The walls and display cases are filled with pen-and-ink drawings of wounded soldiers, people fleeing... nightmares that followed him until he settled on the French Riviera at the end of his life and the colors came flooding back in with the sunlight.
La Danse
     The following rooms are filled with works revealing Chagall’s two main themes:  religion and his Russian-Jewish culture.  Those are the themes that explain his work... if you can unravel his dream images and surrealistic symbolism.  You see again and again the figure of the Wandering Jew, often floating as in a dream.  André Breton called it “a magical world” that Chagall paints, and perhaps even a sort of psychoanalysis through art.
     In the forty gouaches illustrating the Bible, researched during a visit to Palestine, you see artistic proof of Chagall’s auto-revelation:  “In the East I found the Bible and part of my own being.”  It seems a strange admission and a strange visual for a deeply Jewish artist until you remember that the Old Testament is shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.  But beyond the Old Testament, Chagall ventures into the New, constantly depicting the Crucifixion.  That too seems paradoxical until you realize that his Christ on the Cross is really the symbol of all human suffering, the theme that runs through most of his later works.
Monde rouge et noir
     By the end of the exhibit, I felt I knew more about Chagall.  The darkness of his works , I now understood, is part of the brooding sadness so many Russians, especially Russian émigrés, translate into their works, be they paintings, novels, music or poetry.  The violins, the flying men, the goats are all part of his symbolism of Mother Russia.
     And then there’s Bella.  Bella with their child, Bella in a wedding dress, Bella as madonna...  It’s all there on the walls.  Take the autoguide and it’ll help you understand why Chagall is one of the masters of 20th century art.
     When you’re done, go to the Paris Opera House and look up at his ceiling fresco of music and dance.  It was his gift to the city that took him in, welcomed him, the Russian refugee, wandering Jew, and struggling artist.

Until July 21st

     Musée du Luxembourg

     19 rue de Vaugirard
     Paris 6è
     Métro:  Luxembourg

     Daily 10 am - 7:30 pm,
     Fri & Mon until 10 pm
     Sundays 9 am - 8 pm

     Entrance:  11 € & 7.50 €
     Free under age 16

For a view of Chagall's fresco at the Paris Opera House:

Monday, June 10, 2013

A French Meal

When one changes continents, there are many things that also change.  If that change is to Europe, more specifically to France, cuisine is one of the major changes.
     At least it was.  Even that is changing.  Unfortunately.
     Luckily I've managed to transmit that love of and respect for cuisine to my children, and through them to the next generation.  That makes me happy.
     People ask me what makes a French meal.  How is it different from a meal in America?  So I'll try to tell you.

The above is a five-course meal.  (It so happens it was Sunday, and lunch, which used to be the major meal of the day in France.)
     The starter (which the French call the entrée - the entry into the meal - and not the main course as in America) was radishes.  I bought a whole "bouquet" of them at the green grocer's, as much because they were a bright splash of color in a grey day as anything else.  The French serve them with butter and salt, but after I cut off their greenery and their "tail", and washed them in cold water, I couldn't help but nibble them one by one as I made the rest of the meal.
Medals won by my butcher
     There’s something calming about shelling peas or cutting the ends off of green beans.  Especially with some good music playing in the background.  These were the kind Americans market as “French beans”, which I take it means very thin, and they'd been on sale "because it's Mother's Day."  As I trimmed them, the mushrooms for the veal scallop were sautée-ing themselves and the water for the beans was coming to a boil.  The veal was from France (the origin is always marked) and has no hormones or antibiotics, which are both illegal in France.  In addition, many calves are left to gambol in the field and suckle their mother, but those little fellows cost a bit more - understandably.  The butcher serving me had asked me how thin I wanted the scallop cut and we settled on medium (all part of the service).  That meant that it took the same time for the meat to brown on both sides, without cooking the life out of it, as it did for the beans to cook yet remain croquant sous la dent (crunchy under the tooth).
  After that in France comes the salad.  I added a touch of Americana with the tomato, again for color, because a French salad for this course would be just that:  only a salade, meaning some form of greenery, in this case roquette (arugula).  At the green grocer’s, I'd asked for only a fistful and he didn’t flinch or gripe.  That’s something I like here in France:  you can buy small quantities, fresh, and no one minds.  That way there’s nothing thrown out because it’s gone bad in the fridge.  With a little homemade vinaigrette, the salad was delicious.  And making it yourself is easy and quick, plus inexpensive and better for your health.  You can always make extra and keep it for several days, even outside of the fridge.
     Then comes the cheese.  This particular one is from a neighborhood shop specializing in products from the Auvergne region of the Massif Central.  It’s a Laguiole (pronounced lah-yul) from Laguiole, the same town that makes the knives which have become all the rage in the States.  The cows are taken up to the hills in late spring and left there until September.  So this cheese is a seasonal product of the summer.  That’s why every bite tastes of flowers and fresh grass... to which no pesticides are applied because no one farms that area.  The cows keep the weeds down and everyone’s happy.
     Last comes dessert.  And with a pâtisserie just around the corner, it’s amazing I don’t return to America two waist-sizes wider.  Christophe (see blog Sept. 14, 2012) is a wonderful pastry chef, but a large share of Christophe’s clientele is tourists on their way to or from the top of Montmartre, so he only makes big cakes sur commande (upon request).  Still, that leaves a good selection of pastries to choose from.  I hesitated between a fondant au chocolat (chocolate lava cake) and a peach tart... so I took both.
     After all, there’s always tea time.

P.S.  All this took only a half hour to prepare and cook.  And all very healthy.  Except maybe for the tart, although it was made with fresh peaches, so...

Boucherie Jacky Gaudin
triperie / volailles / charcuterie
viande française
50 rue des Abbesses; 18è
01.46.06. 40.38

Aux Produits & Saveurs d’Auvergne
maison familiale fondée en 1925
Charcuterie - Fromagerie 
Arrivage direct tous les jours
23 rue Lepic; 18è

Boulangerie Pâtisserie Parisse
9 rue Ravignan; 18è

Friday, June 7, 2013

Out and About: Galabru Does Pagnol's Daudet

There are moments when it’s good not to be too current with the news.  Otherwise, I would have heard yesterday afternoon that French actor Michel Galabru had died.  And I had tickets for his show tonight.
     Luckily for me, it was a hoax.  I’m absolutely sure of that because I just got back from seeing him on stage at the Théâtre St. Georges.  And he was very much alive.  Alive and doing what Galabru does best: hamming it up for the greater joy of the audience.
     You may have seen Galabru if you’re a big movie fan.  Lord knows he’s made 250 films.  He usually plays the clown, as in any of the Gendarme series or more subtly in Besson’s Subway (1985), but is totally capable of playing serious roles such as the simple-minded but murderous Sergeant Bouvier in Tavernier’s Le Juge et L’Assassin (1976), for which he won a César (the French Oscar) for best actor.
     On stage, he’s done everything from Molière (having been a member of the troupe of the Comédie Française) to Ionesco to Goldoni to Neil Simon.  But tonight he’s starring in a “play” that’s actually a cobbling together of three short stories written by Alphonse Daudet in his late 1800s work, Lettres de Mon Moulin.  All had been reworked by author/director Marcel Pagnol, the first two for a film in 1954 and the last for television in 1968.  The director is someone Galabru knows well:  his son, Jean, who also plays roles in all three... let’s call them sketches.

First comes Les Trois Messes Basses.  It’s Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and Galabru, a priest, is discussing things with his acolyte, who is actually the Devil in disguise.  (This is interjected by the narrator, who plays a role similar to the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.)  Galabru’s character has a weakness for good food, especially truffles, and the acolyte/Devil, played by son Galabru, keeps bringing the conversation back to food, and how the lengthy three Christmas masses are going to result in an overcooked midnight meal.  The Devil, I mean acolyte, suggests that he should keep ringing the bell to keep the pace up.  And so it ends in disaster, and the poor priest, who has died by eating and drinking too much, has to explain it all to St. Peter when he arrives at the Pearly Gates.  The sight of Galabru the Younger racing across the stage, ringing the bell, highlights the slapstick quality that lies hidden in Daudet’s tale.
     The second sketch, L’élixir du Père Gaucher, has a message that's still relevant today because it concerns corporate greed, albeit at a lower level.  It all starts with the abbot complaining that the Benedictines are rich because of the liqueur they make, but his order is as poor as... well, church mice.  Then in walks arrives Brother Gaucher, back from the funeral of his deceased aunt, who has left him the recipe for her elixir.  As the aunt taught Brother Gaucher not only a whole repertoire of bawdy songs but also how to make the elixir, the decision is made to go into production.  The problem is that Brother Gaucher has to taste each batch to make sure it’s been made right... and that usually ends up with him singing the bawdy songs and doing other things one does when one has tibbled a bit too many drops.  Fearing for the health of his eternal soul, he is ultimately talked out of quitting by the abbot, who has used the profits to refurbish the abbey, as well as by the apothecary, who is getting rich out of marketing the elixir.  This was the sketch I enjoyed the least, and also the one where Galabru’s character was the least outstanding.
     The final sketch, Le Curé de Cucugnan, has become a classic.  Everyone knows it, so the suspense is all in how it’s played.  It is basically a sermon that the curate of Cucugnan gives, a vision he has had.  In it, he first goes to Heaven and asks St. Peter how many of his parishioners are there.  None.  Then he goes to Purgatory and asks again.  Again:  none.  Finally, he goes to Hell... and finds them all there.  Then comes a litany of how each is suffering, and the warning that they will all end up there.  The brave little curate sets up a schedule to hear all of his flock in confession so that by next Sunday they all will be fresh-souled and ready for an eventual visit from the Grim Reaper.  The other three members of the cast appear as the gate keepers of the three nether-worlds, including the Narrator from the other two sketches, rigged out in horns, black tights, red high heels and a sexy red leotard worthy of Pigalle just up the street.  The audience was in stitches, and so was I.  Daudet wrote it well, Pagnol adapted it magnificently, and Galabru played it to the hilt, running the gamut from the hushed confidentiality of a concerned confessor to the blustering hellfire of an Elmer Gantry.  A pure delight that had the audience on their feet as the cast of four took their bows.
Left to right:  Nadine Capri, Jean Galabru, Michel Galabru, Maxime Lombard

All three sketches have a common thread:  Man’s infinite weakness and susceptibility to Earthly Pleasures.  And in all three, Galabru - still verbally spry at 91 - does what he does best:  stumble over words, roll his eyes and make rubbery faces that may be over the top but only when done less well.
     If understatement is what you’re after, then Galabru is not for you.  But the spectators had come for Galabru, and Galabru they got.

P.S.  If my photos of the theater look familiar, it's either because you've been there or because you saw it at the movies.  This is where Truffaut's Le Dernier Métro was filmed.

For a look at Galabru’s performances, try Le Juge et L’assassin:
or Subway:
or the Gendarmes in New York: