Monday, December 23, 2013

Out and About: Exhibit: Angkor Wat

I have a Bucket List.  I suppose everyone does.  At the top of that Bucket List is Machu Picchu.  Right below it is Angkor Wat.
     But flights to those two destinations are expensive and long.  So those exotic places are going to have to wait a while.  Which is why, when I saw there was a show about Angkor here in Paris, I got out my subway pass and I was off to the 16th arrondissement and the Musée des Arts Asiatique Guimet.

Guimet’s collection covers artworks of just about any Asian nation you could name - from India, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Japan and Korea, from the Himalayas to Vietnam.
     After all, France was one of the three great colonial powers of the past, alongside Great Britain and Spain.  A huge swath of southeast Asia flew the French flag under the name Indochine (Indochina):  Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  In addition, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had also built trading settlements in India:  Mahe, Chandernagor, Pondicherry, Karikal and Yanam - names all French children once had to learn in grade school.  So what could be more normal than that Asian art, at least from these areas, should find its way into French museums and private collections?
     I’m not sure, but I think the first time I heard of Angkor Wat was in college.  As a French major, I was subjected to an inordinate number of Gallic books, one of which was André Malraux’s La Voie Royale (1930).  In it, the “heros” penetrate the Indochinese jungle to steal bas-reliefs from ancient Khmer temples.  And the author should know about that, because Malraux himself went to Cambodia in 1923 under the pretext of taking molds of Angkor Wat for the self-same Musée Guimet and instead sawed off statues and bas-reliefs with the intention of selling them to collectors he had already contacted.  He was arrested in Phnom Penh and sentenced to over a year in prison, but his wife rallied the French intelligentsia who put so much pressure on the government that he was released after only three months.  In spite of that buccaneer-ish start at age 23, Malraux nonetheless ended up as Minister of Culture in the DeGaulle administration and his body now reposes in the Panthéon alongside other great intellectuals such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Dumas and Zola, as well as Marie and Pierre Curie.

But I digress.  Back to Angkor Wat.
     I meet a friend in front of the museum and we find the temporary exhibit on Angkor, which is on the downstairs level.  Much of it consists of drawings made by a certain Louis Delaporte, who must have ruined his eyesight on them, judging by his meticulous renderings of the ornate temples.  All those tiny lines!  Amazing!  Not one is missing.  How can I tell?  Because near the drawings are the actual molds taken of the bas-reliefs during the expedition.  And it’s a good thing those molds were cast, because between Malraux and other art marauders hacking off parts of the decor, and later the Khmer Rouge using the statues for target practice during their deadly occupation of their own homeland, not to mention erosion from centuries of monsoons and fractures caused by the roots of sprouting trees and vines, there’s not a whole lot of original detail left today.
   In addition to Laporte’s drawings and the moldings, there are also actual statues from the 10th to the 13th century, some ornate, others touching in their simplicity.  I’m not terribly familiar with the culture of Cambodia and not knowledgeable enough to recognize which of the gods is which.  But there is so much to see in the bas-reliefs, and such beauty in the simple busts, that it doesn’t matter.  The flow of the lines carries the eye from one detail to another.
     A quick look at some of the literature explains to visitors that Angkor Wat was first a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, then later a Buddhist one, which explains a bit of the dichotomy of the gods depicted.  It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II early in the 12th century, which makes it even more amazing that anything at all has survived, given the threat of encroachment by the surrounding jungle.  It’s the largest religious monument in the world, and has become the emblem of Cambodia, even featuring on the national flag.
   It’s amazing that we can stand here today and look at these vestiges, because the moldings were stored for decades in the damp cellars of St. Riquier Abbey near Abbeville in the marshy Somme region well north of Paris.  The exhibit’s experts found over 1,000 molds stacked in such a way that picking any of them up was like playing a gigantic Pick-Up-Sticks game ( Mikado in French) where moving one might well damage the others around it.  After that, the pieces had to be assembled like some vast and intricate jigsaw puzzle.  But the result is amazing.  I find my hand keeps creeping out, wanting to touch them, but I don’t dare
     The show also flows over into other Cambodian temples, such as the one at Bayon famous for its huge Buddhist heads looking to the four corners of the universe, with even more Asian art treasures above on the other floors.
Bayon temple
     The Guimet Museum first opened its doors in 1889 and houses the largest collection of Asian art outside of Asia.  It’s well worth a visit.  Plan to stay a while.

Angkor, l’invention d’un mythe

until Jan. 13, 2014
Daily except Tuesday
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
7.50-9.50€, reduced 5.50-7€

Musée des Arts Asiatique Guimet
6, place Iéna
75016 - Paris

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

     It’s only early December.
     And it’s already snowing.
     And I’m not prepared.
     I don’t mean prepared with snow boots and snow shovels and ice for the driveway.  I mean prepared in my head.
     When I was a little girl I lived in western New York, which New Yorkers call “Upstate”, even though it’s not “up”, but more “to the left”.  Between Rochester and the Finger Lakes, to be exact.  If you like snow, that’s the place to be in winter:  in a northern state, and east of a Great Lake.  You want snow?  You got it!  The clouds travel over Lake Erie, picking up water as they go, and when they hit land.... bingo!... snow.
     I was shorter then, so the snow probably seemed higher up my young legs.  But it wasn’t just an illusion.  The average snowfall for that part of the world is between 92 and 115 inches (2.3-2.9 m), with annual fluctuations.  On a chart of the top 101 cities in the entire United States (Alaska included) having the highest average snowfall in a year, Numbers 1, 2, 4, and 7 through 12 are all in that general geographic area.  So I knew about snow.  When we moved to southeast Michigan, the snow seemed piddling in comparison.

And then I moved to Paris.
     All of the sudden, no snow.
     The very first year, I took a trip by car through northern France and across to London around Christmas time.  To my amazement, the grass was still green.  In the part of America that I’d left behind, grass disappeared before Santa arrived, not to reappear until spring, and even then it was a tired straw-colored yellow.  Here the grass wasn’t growing, but it was still a lush green.  In spite of the fact that Paris and London are at the same latitude as Labrador.  As Yul Brynner said in The King and I: “Is a puzzlement!”
     Over my thirty-some years in Paris, green winters were transformed from a puzzlement into the norm.
     And then I moved back to Michigan for part of the year.  Including part of the winter.
     Which is why I’m sitting here, looking out the window, on the 14th of December, as the fifth snowfall of the year blankets everything in what is already 4 inches of snow... and will probably keep accumulating for 12 more hours.
     Years ago, my daughter was born on tomorrow’s date and the window of the hospital was cracked open.  A ladybug flew in and landed on the sheet as she came into the world... a sign of good luck in West Indies culture.  The window will not be cracked open tomorrow.  The sky will still be low, the thermometer as well.

There have been many winters between that first French one of the lush green grass and the one outside my Michigan window today.  Most of them I gazed on from my fifth floor apartment overlooking the gardens of the Sacré-Coeur.
     Paris winters don’t usually involve snow.  And when they do, the snow rarely lasts more than overnight, or occasionally a day or two.  In 1970, it lasted a week and no one knew what to do.  I was still fresh from my North American training so I found it only bothersome because I didn’t have the right boots and it was the slushy kind of late March snow that ruins shoes.  I was living eight floors up then, in a tiny maid’s room with a view out over zinc rooftops the same grey color as the sky.  It was just boring.
     Then came the move to Montmartre and the park view.  Whenever it would snow, the park guardian would come and lock the gates.  Of course, they were only about waist high so it was fairly easy to climb over them - and people did - but at least the city wasn’t responsible if you hurt yourself; they had done their due diligence and you were trespassing.  People would come with pieces of cardboard and slide down the slopes.  Some even strapped on their skis.  I laughingly called the Funiculaire that usually ferries tourists to the top of the Butte “our ski lift”.  It was a fun scene to watch, and when he was older my son even climbed the fence one night and made a snowman.
My apartment hidden behind the snow tree
   Lately, winters have been getting more snow-filled in Paris.  Two years ago, friends were sending me videos of people snowboarding the sloping, winding streets of Montmartre.  And last year the cold lasted long enough to kill most of what until then had been winter-hardy plants in my new apartment’s garden, probably because it got cold before any snow fell to keep them warm.  (I’ve never quite understood how snow could keep things warm, but evidently it does.)  This winter promises to be more of the same.  Why, it even snowed in Cairo, Egypt!
      Ah, ma brave dame, il n’y a plus de saisons!  Yes, dear lady, the seasons have gone beserk!

So I’ve just brewed myself a hot cup of Earl Grey tea and I’m sitting by the window, watching the snow fall as dark descends.  It’s very quiet, because snow has excellent muffling qualities.  And it’s beautiful.
     But I’m just not ready for four months of this.  And tomorrow there’s a snow shovel with my name on it so I can get to the mailbox to collect all those Christmas cards.
     I think I’ll call the airlines to check on flights to Paris.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Recipe of the Month: Mousse au chocolat

Joyeux Noël!
     Christmas in France is a family affair, and the big meal is served Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass.  Or it used to be.    
     Nowadays it’s often served, as in America, on Christmas Day after the presents are opened.  The traditional dessert is a bûche, of many different recipes, all of which are complicated to make.
     Christmas also means candied chestnuts (marrons glacés), but above all chocolates.  Some of my favorite memories are of hours spent watching pastry chef Bernard Bertheau make them himself in the basement of his shop in Montmartre.  It was cramped by modern standards, and a lot of the equipment dated back to his start in the trade sometime shortly after World War II.  But it was brightly lit and spotlessly clean.  I would pick my way down the narrow, winding stairs and hear him moan “Oh non, l’Américaine!”... with a big smile on his face.  Monsieur Bertheau loved to tease and he adored anyone who shared his passion for pastry and chocolates.
     I never failed to be amazed by the speed and sureness of his movements, and by how he always knew when the melted chocolate was too cold to work.  He’d pop the tub back in his huge pastry oven for just a few seconds, pull it out, stir vigorously, drop in almonds or candied orange peel, then take them out one at a time, stuck on his fork (making that trademark three lines on the chocolate coating) and leave them to cool on the marble work surface.  He was proud of his handiwork, and I think he enjoyed “catching” me pop one into my mouth.  I’ve never tasted chocolate so good!
     One day Monsieur Bertheau retired and sold the shop.  I inherited some of his vintage chocolate molds, but so far I haven’t screwed up my courage to try using them.  His act is just too hard to follow.  I visit him and his wife in their new home in their native Loire region.  It’s been almost twenty years, and he hasn’t made a pastry or a chocolate since the shop closed.  But then I guess he made enough of them in his fifty-year career to last a lifetime.  Still, I wish he would.  And invite me.

There are as many recipes for mousse au chocolat as there are cooks.  Light and fluffy with milk chocolate, heavy and creamy with dark chocolate... With or without liqueur.  And everyone likes their own best.  This is Monsieur Bertheau’s version which is easy and fast to make.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

  • 200 g (7 oz) baking chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 30 g (1/4 stick or 2 T) butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • optional 1/4 c liqueur such as cognac or Grand Marnier
  • 50 g (1 3/4 oz or 1/5 c) sugar

- Select a 2-quart stainless steel bowl and a saucepan large enough so that the bowl fits snugly on top.  Pour boiling water into the saucepan and set the bowl on top of it.  Keep the water at a simmer.
- Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl.  Continue stirring until well blended, then remove the bowl from the saucepan.
- Add the sugar to the egg yolks and mix with a wooden spoon until they are frothy.
- Mix the egg and sugar (and optional liqueur) into the chocolate, and stir until thoroughly blended.
- Place the bowl briefly in the refrigerator until the mixture is slightly cooler than lukewarm.  If it becomes too chilled, it will harden, so don’t let it get too cold.
- Beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
- Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture until it’s all the same chocolate-ness in color.  Do not beat or stir them or the egg whites will “fall”.
- Spoon the mousse into 4 ramekins.  You can decorate it with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings, almond slices, cinnamon, mint sprig, or anything else your imagination whispers in your ear.
- Chill briefly until ready to serve.

P.S.  This is a good recipe for lactose intolerant people, as there is neither milk nor cream, only butter, which could, I suppose, be replaced by a non-dairy substitute.  But that would be a shame.