Friday, January 24, 2014

Restocking the larder

One of the things I do when leaving France each time is to clean out the fridge.  Finishing off anything in it.  For obvious reasons.  Leaving half a head of lettuce in the crisper would be disastrous if you’re going to be gone for an extended period.
     So when I come back, like Mother Hubbard and her poor old dog, the cupboard is bare.  And the refrigerator even more so.
     Which means that one of the very first things I do is to go on a grocery run.  This is what that looks like.

Late morning and it’s starting to get hungry at my place.  I’ve eaten the half baguette I bought yesterday, upon arrival, to tide me over.  So it’s off on a Food Run.
     First stop - because it’s farthest downhill - is the G20 supermarket.  To Americans, it probably looks like Grandma’s supermarket, and not very super at that.  More modest than super.  But it packs a lot into a small area.  When I get to the check-out counter, the girl looks at my caddy and asks “For home delivery?”
     “How did you know?” I query.
     “One look at your caddy was enough.”  And yes, it is pretty full.  I take the frozen spinach and the half-dozen eggs and leave the rest.  I write my address on the sales slip, along with the code to the door on the street and the location of the apartment - ground floor, back of the garden - and slip the lady a tip, just in case she beats me home, which has been known to happen.  (A tip isn’t required, but I feel it’s only fair.  I live sufficiently uphill to merit a euro or two.)

     Then I start to retrace my steps.  I’ve bought a chicken and mayo sandwich for the young guy sleeping rough with his dog, but by the time I’ve finished at G20 he’s gone off somewhere, leaving behind his bedding and beggar’s bowl.  Probably gone to get a coffee to counter the cold and use their restroom.  I leave the sandwich for him, which I know he shares with his dog.
     First stop:  the shop selling specialties from the Massif Central region of France.  I shake the owner’s hand, as French etiquette requires between people you frequent on a fairly daily basis. She asks me how the States was, adding that the frigid temperatures and frozen Niagara Falls have been on the news here.  (It’s a comment I hear in almost every store.)  I buy a big wedge of her hard cheese from Cantal, a few slices of tangy salami with cracked pepper on the outside, a piece of boudin (blood sausage - I know, it sounds horrible but it’s delicious) and a package of lentilles vertes, those tiny, wonderfully delicious, dark green lentils from central France’s extinct volcano region.  Oh, and a thick slice of her wonderful pâté with morels, which will be dinner.  All traditional products made by artisans.
     Second stop:  the flower shop to buy a yellow primevère (primrose) to give the windowsill a bit of color amidst all the green plants, plus a hyacinth for the fragrance.  The seller tells me the blue ones are the most fragrant - which I didn’t know - and it’s sprouting out of a bulb so it can be planted in the garden when it’s past its prime.  Plus a bouquet of tulips, tied together with a bit of raffia... just because I'm tired of winter.
     Next on the dance card is the fish monger on the corner, where I buy some crevettes grises, tiny grey shrimp that I’ve never found in America.  Known in Latin as Crangon crangon, Wikipedia says that they’re “a commercially important species of caridean shrimp fished mainly in the southern North Sea, although also found in the Irish Sea, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea, as well.”  Which would explain it.  I buy a handful of them for lunch because they’re so tasty.  You get the goods at the stall, then go “indoors” - although the whole shop is open to the air - and pay at the counter, where the old lady with the white hair looks frozen (it’s only 40°F today).  She tells me, with her Italian accent, that she’s off soon “back home” to Italy, where it’s noticeably warmer, a thought that brings a smile to her hardly wrinkled face.
     Off to the butcher shop, where I buy some joues de porc; that’s “pork cheeks”, a slow-cooking meat that’s delicious if you’re patient and/or have a CrockPot.  With the owner, Jacky, looking on, I ask the young butcher (an apprentice?) for some araignée.  That means “spider” because of the way the filaments radiate out in all directions, like a spider’s legs.  In English it’s called a “spider steak” which one expert explains as “a cut of beef that’s much more common in France than in the US, but even there you’ll need to go to a real butcher who works on whole carcasses. There’s only about 10 or 12 ounces of this cut in an entire cow. Here [in the U.S.], it’s thrown on the heap of meat that becomes hamburger; there [France], it’s turned into a gastronomic delight.”  The araignée is one of what are called “the butcher’s cuts” because they often keep them for themselves.  It’s inexpensive yet super-tasty.  And unfortunately not in stock today (see above), but he has something close.  I can trust him - and when I grill it up for lunch, to follow the shrimp appetizer, he was right.  It was tender and flavorful.
     Penultimate stop, the wine shop.  And as it’s Wednesday, the owner Emmanuel (or Manu, as we call him), is on duty.  After the requisite two-cheek kiss between friends, I tell Manu how many reds as opposed to whites and what price niche I’m aiming for; he does the rest.  His selection of a dozen bottles, mostly between $7 and $10, will be delivered to my door Saturday morning, but no longer by Cousin, who has now retired.  (He was called Cousin by the old manager, Serge, also now retired, even though Serge is from Normandy and Cousin is seriously black and from the French West Indies, but Serge called him his cousin, so who am I to quibble.)
     Last stop, fruit and veg.  Ever since they did a rehab job on their shop, bringing it from the 19th century into the 21st, Tarik and his crew are even more pleasant than before, in spite of the cold.  (Like the fishmonger’s, it’s open to the elements.)  While he’s busy with a customer, I walk about, admiring all the fresh produce.  I end up buying more than I probably need, but it all looks so good!  Potatoes, onions, leeks... even the brussel sprouts.  He asks if I want to taste a blood orange, so I take the slice he offers.  Then he says, “No, the whole thing’s for you.”  And it’s delicious.  Juicy and full of sun on such a grey, cold day.  I let myself be tempted by their dried fruits, sold in bulk (well, unpackaged).  Some prunes to cook with the pork, apricots because they’re not all shrively like most of their kin, and the biggest, lushest dates I’ve ever seen.  I’ve bought them from this shop before and they’re the kind you can only eat one at a time.  Samyr bags it all up, slipping a third Belgian endive in with the ones I bought - because he feels one of them may have a bad spot in it - and adding two dried figs and a second bouquet of radishes... just because he likes me.  As at G20 and the wine shop, he takes down my address, floor and door code for a delivery later in the day.
     By the time I climb the hill, I find the two boxes of groceries waiting in front of my door.  It’s a good thing I left a tip when I paid for the goods.  After all, there’s quite a slope from there to my door, not to mention the ten stone steps.  Not easy to do all that with a shopping caddy, even if I’m on the ground floor.
     I have enough time to unload the boxes and grill the steak for lunch before it starts raining.  Lucky I went out when I did and finished while it was only cold and not yet wet.
    In the middle of the afternoon, Samry braves the elements to deliver my fruit and vegetables.
     The fridge is full, the fruit bowl also.  Now all I have to do is cook and eat.
     There are worse lots in life.

P.S.  That was Wednesday.  On Saturday, I looked around for the tulips... and realized I'd left them somewhere along the way.  I went over my route in my mind.  Traced my steps back to the wine shop - maybe - and asked them if I'd left a bouquet of tulips behind.  "Oh, those were yours?  Oops! I gave them to a young lady.  She was very pleased."  At least they didn't let them wither.
     So I bought another bouquet.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fast food, French style

Paris - and France in general - has changed a lot since I first landed in 1968.  If I delve back to the misty memories I have of a childhood trip with my parents in 1958, the changes are even more mind-boggling.
     I’ve said elsewhere, and maybe even here, that I got off the plane at Orly (there was no Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport then) having time-traveled twenty years into the past.  Television had only two channels and programs didn’t run all day long.  Channel 2 (Antenne 2) - created only the day before (in 1964) - started and signed off around midnight with an animation of seven flying men in blue coats, images by famous Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.
     But the changes between France and the U.S. weren’t limited to television.  Now you can get a phone line overnight, instead of waiting up to two years for one as was the norm back then.  And the little blue local telegrams (pneumatiques) that stood in for phone calls have disappeared.  Almost all the Métro lines have been extended beyond the city limits and into the banlieues rouges, the working class suburbs ringing Paris, which aren’t so working class anymore.  And long gone are the days when schoolboys went to class in short pants and the ceremony of the first pair of long pants was a rite of passage to adulthood tantamount to the African circumcision ceremonies - but far more merciful.
The nameless café I just call "Chez Maria"
     In the transition years during which France caught up and sometimes sped past America, the French went over to using cellphones long before Americans did.  Most phone plans nowadays include free overseas calls, which I’d love to see Stateside.  And Paris is totally cabled in optic fiber now, which can’t be said of many American cities.  Where technology is involved, France is no slouch.
     Those are just a few of the changes that spring to mind.

A simple, but lovely omelette

One thing that has changed less is French gastronomy.  But even there, the camel has his nose under the tent.  With women working in two-paycheck families, frozen foods have made enormous inroads.  Hamburgers can be found anywhere, not just at the now-disappeared WimpyBurger, a British fast-food joint that broke France's Burger Barrier in the late Sixties.  And Mickey D (here known as McDoh) is present in pretty much every corner of France, including the far-flung ones.  Even coffee isn’t safe from Yankee invasion, with Starbucks giving the old French café a run for its money, although why you’d want to drink an American cup of java in France surpasses my mental capabilities, but then I’m a tea drinker anyway, so...
     Earlier today I was watching “Jacques and Julia”, the PBS cooking show that married Julia Child with Jacques Pépin for a series of fights about black pepper vs white and the use of garlic or not.  The theme of the day was steaks, and they made five sorts.  (Well, four actually because the hamburger was the fifth.)  Their recipes included the classic steak Diane, steak au poivre (pepper steak) and steak Bistro.  It reminded me of what I came to consider Fast Food, French Style.
   The thing you could get in the blink of an eye in any café offering food was a steak-frites, a steak pan-browned in butter with a plateful of French fries that were some of the crispiest I’d ever had, sprinkled with the best salt I’d ever tasted.   It came too raw/rare for my taste, so I ate around the edges and left the center.  (Over time, I moved from eating my steaks brown inside to pink and then to somewhat red.)  The meat was tougher than I was used to in the States but perhaps more flavorful.  Years later I would take some Americans on a tour of France, ending in the Massif Central where they were treated to what may be the best-tasting breed of steak in the country:  the Salers.  They found it good but “chewy”, which echoed my own feelings decades before.
Brandade de morue,
with side salad
     In addition to the steak-frites, every brasserie - and even some cafés - offered a Blue Plate Special, a plat du jour, or dish of the day.  Usually it was something that could simmer on a back burner throughout the lunch rush without cooking down to mush and so be served up in a heartbeat, such as a boeuf bourguignon or pot au feu (both types of beef stew) or a hachis parmentier (shepherd’s pie) or a poulet basquaise (chicken with tomatoes and bell peppers).  For the fish-eaters, there was often (especially on Fridays) a brandade de morue - a type of shepherd’s pie with salt cod replacing the ground beef.  You could also choose something that could be quickly grilled (not enough to the American palate - see above), such as liver with onions or some kind of sausage.  And of course there was - and still is - the French version of the good old grilled cheese sandwich with ham, the croque-monsieur ... or croque-madame if you wanted a fried egg on the top.  Maybe an omelette, with or without cheese, mushrooms, ham... or all of the above.  And let’s not forget the salad that has since become popular in trendy American restaurants:  the salade niçoise, a summer treat that crowns its greenery with boiled potatoes, tuna, black olives, cherry tomatoes, and a smattering of green beans plus two or three anchovies artistically arranged on the top.
     All this to say that you don’t have to take two hours for a meal in France.  You can get delicious fast food, French style.  So eat your heart out, McDonald’s!  This is a whole other ball game.

Ancien Hôtel Baudy, in Giverny

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Page Out of History: Rose Valland

Rose Valland
If you’ve ever seen John Frankenheimer’s 1964 movie The Train starring Burt Lancaster, you’ve heard Rose Valland’s story.  But you probably barely noticed her character, played with fitting understatement by iconic French actress Suzanne Flon, because the movie’s focus was placed on France’s railroad heroes, who truly did so much to sabotage and stall the Nazis, especially in the final days of France’s Occupation.
     The train in the title was requisitioned to carry off thousands of French artworks before the impending Allied liberation of Paris.  Early in the film, Flon is introduced to Lancaster, the film’s hero, as Mademoiselle Villard from the Jeu de Paume Museum.  Which is correct, except for the cosmetic two-letter change in her name (and one wonders why they bothered).  Flon speaks softly and her demeanor is muted, her looks ordinary (as were Rose’s).  But she fully understands the value of the paintings while the railroad characters see them only as “a load of pictures” whose value is merely “what they’re worth” on the market.  They think she wants the train carrying them off to Berlin to be bombed.  To which Villard/Valland replies, “Oh no!  They must not even be damaged.  They could never be replaced. (...)  The paintings are part of France.  (...)  This is our pride, what we created and hold for the world.  There are worse things to risk your life for than that.”
     And risking her life is exactly what the real Rose Valland did, every day, throughout the four long years of Nazi occupation.

I’ve visited the Jeu de Paume dozens of times.  On one of those visits, I noticed a plaque on the south side of the building.  Put up in 2005, it told a strange story of a woman who listed daily all the artworks the Nazis had confiscated and stored in the museum.  Had her efforts been discovered, she would have been executed.  At the end of World War II, the lists she comprised made it possible to locate and return over 45,000 artworks spirited away by the Nazis.
     Her unassuming, even bland demeanor helped her in her task.
     The daughter of a blacksmith, Rose Valland was born in 1898 in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, a small town near Grenoble.  A simple art teacher, she ended up studying at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then the Ecole du Louvre, and even the Collège de France.  But teaching art didn’t satisfy her.  Longing to be closer to the artworks she adored, she volunteered as the assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume in 1932.  That was as high as she could aspire.  Above that level, you needed to be Somebody... and she wasn’t.
     Then came the war.
Ecole du Louvre and entrance named after Jaujard
     By 1941, the Director of France’s National Museums and Curator of the Louvre Jacques Jaujard had come to appreciate her for her devotion.  And he needed someone to help him.  Because Jaujard hid a second persona beneath his discreet curator’s exterior:  he had links to the French Résistance.  “There are fights that you may lose without losing your honor”, he said; “what makes you lose your honor is not to fight them.”  Before France’s defeat, Jaujard spirited away most of the jewels of the Louvre’s collection.  The Mona Lisa, the Wedding at Cana, Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace...  all gone.  What he turned over to the Nazis was virtually an empty museum.  When they fired him, all the staff of all the French museums quit.  As the Nazis wanted to rule an orderly France and needed the museums to function, he was reinstated.  Perhaps the Nazis hoped to win him over and learn where the treasures were hidden.
Resting by the museum
     Instead of that, Jaujard hired Rose Valland, with pay, to oversee the Jeu de Paume Museum as the Nazis used it as a clearing house for all the artworks they confiscated from other museums and from Jews who had fled or been rounded up.  The secret part of Rose Valland’s job was to make an exhaustive list of all those artworks and where they were sent.  No small task.  And the list was long.  Renoir, Cézanne, Braque, Degas, Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet and Monet,  Miro, Seurat, Utrillo, Roualt, Vlaminck, Dufy, Toulouse-Lautrec... Over 20,000 pieces of art passed through the Jeu de Paume.
     The Nazis were admirable bookkeepers.  What they didn’t know was that Valland spoke enough German to understand the conversations she overheard and the documents she saw.  All her information was passed on to Jacques Jaujard, the only person she trusted, and from him to the Résistance, who frequently blew up trains.  And that’s where the movie The Train comes in, even though it takes considerable liberties in the telling of the tale.
     At the end of the war, the Allied Forces wanted to restore the art stolen from France, as well as from other occupied countries.  For that purpose, and that purpose only, the Monuments Men were created.  One of them, the one assigned to Paris after its liberation on August 24, 1944, was James Rorimer.  Hitler’s orders to General von Choltitz, the Nazi commander of Paris, were to blow the city up, leaving the Allies with only “a field of ruins” to liberate*.  Luckily, von Choltitz didn’t carry out those orders, even though dynamite had been placed under every bridge and monument in the city.  Even Notre-Dame.  Rorimer’s job was to find all the paintings, all the sculptures, all the other works of art stolen by the Nazis.   Ever wary, Rose Valland entrusted him with only as much information as he needed at the moment, until she was convinced he could be trusted.  But even then, she led him from discovery to discovery.
     Rose Valland served as Conservator of the French National Museums, a post she never would have won without her unflagging proof of her love of art.  She retired in 1968 but worked on to help with the restitution of any artworks that resurfaced.  She was awarded top honors by her government and by the Résistance, as well as the Medal of Freedom by the U.S. government and even the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany, which is highly ironic.  She died in 1980.

View of Place de la Concorde from Jeu de Paume Museum

If you’re interested in this part of history and by Rose Valland, here are some sources of more information:
     The Monuments Men, a book by Robert Edsel, tells the story of how these treasures were hunted down and spotlights the contribution of both Jacques Jaujard and Rose Valland.  A film by the same name is shortly to be released, with George Clooney as the director and star as well as the writer of the screenplay.  Cate Blanchett plays Rose Valland, which is physically poor typecasting for the forgettable forty-something spinster, but as an excellent actress, she may pull it off.
     The book The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas and the 2007 documentary of the same name both tell the tale of the Nazi theft of Europe’s art treasures, with a special segment on Rose Valland’s role in recovering it.
If fiction is more your thing, Sara Houghteling's first novel, Pictures at an Exhibition (2009), bases her character Rose Clément on the real- life Rose Valland.  The physical description is far off the mark, but the description of her work accurately portrays Valland’s real life.
For that, there’s Le Front de l’Art by Rose Valland, which has been on my list of books to find and read for many years.  It tells her story.  And who better to tell it than herself?
Frankenheimer’s film The Train was loosely based on the book Valland wrote.  As it opens, Nazi Colonel von Waldheim arrives before dawn to stare at the paintings hanging in the Jeu de Paume.  He stops before a Gauguin.  Mlle. Villard/Valland appears behind him, in the shadows.  Which is very fitting because Rose Valland, like Jacques Jaujard, worked in the shadows.
The Louvre, at nightfall
      And if you ever tour a French museum, look for the initials MNR.  They stand for Musées Nationaux Récupérations and can be found on some 2,000 works that “disappeared” during World War II and whose owners have never been identified... but probably who themselves “disappeared" in one of the Nazi concentration camps, on the way there or on their way back.   Keep in mind the poignant final paragraph of Houghteling's novel:  “If you are ever in France, and from a distance you see a painting that looks roughly handled for a masterpiece - in the Musée d’Orsay, or any of the other hundreds of museums - look closely at the placard beside it, and you will likely see the letters MNR.  I can still recall the first time I saw them, next to a Sisley with a torn corner.”

* For more about the von Choltitz episode, see my blogpost of October 21, 2011:  Out and About: Events:  Diplomatie.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Gratin d'endives

Here in Paris it’s usually not as cold as in many parts of the U.S.  This has always amazed me because on the map Paris is at the same latitude as Labrador, Canada. And yet the temperature rarely drops below freezing for long and snow is rare, thanks to the Gulf Stream, which crosses the Atlantic and flows into the English Channel. That makes the climate milder.  On my first trip across the Channel to England, I was amazed to see the grass was still green at Christmas!
     Nevertheless, it rains a lot and the sun hides most of the winter.  That can chill you to the bone.  So winter often means “comfort food”, at least in the north of France.
     With all the excesses of the holiday season, and anxious to lose any added pounds picked up (more the ladies than the gentlemen, but still...), I’ve chosen a winter dish that is low in calories as well as being inexpensive.  What more could you ask for, post-Santa?

"Belgian" endive
P.S.  On a culinary note, although the word "endive" exists in both French and English, the French endive used in this recipe is generally called Belgian endive in English.  (Have I lost you yet?) It's a member of the chicory family.  In fact, in the U.K. it's often marked as chicory when you find it at the market.  The Dutch appropriately call it witloof  (or witlof), which means white leaf, perhaps as they don't want to be caught up in the attribution of a nationality.  After all, French fries are actually Belgian, so...

  • 8 endives
  • 1/4 of a stick of butter
  • 3 T of flour
  • ½ t salt
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 to 1 1/4 c milk
  • 1/4 c grated parmesan
  • 6 to 8 thin slices of prosciutto or other dry-cured ham
  • 2 T of shavings of Emmenthal or Comté cheese 
  • 1½ t freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Wash the endives.  The white base of the endive is what makes it bitter, so you want to cut off just that part.  Take too much off and the endive will fall apart.
- Melt the butter over low heat so that it doesn’t color.  As soon as it starts to bubble, take the pan off the burner and whisk in the flour, salt, nutmeg and Cayenne pepper.  Stir until it thickens.
- Put the saucepan back on the burner and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly.  (Whole milk preferably, or else 2%, but NOT skimmed, as it could make the taste too “thin”.)  Turn the burner way down and continue to stir until there are no lumps.  Let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.  It’s done when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Add in the parmesan and continue to simmer for 2 or 3 minutes until the cheese melts into the mixture. Give it one last stir to make sure the cheese is evenly distributed, then take it off the burner.
- Butter the bottom and sides of an attractive deep baking dish big enough to hold all eight endives in one layer.  (An attractive one so it can go directly onto the table.)  Arrange the endives in the dish and drape the ham over them. (Another way is to wrap each endive in a slice of ham, provided the slices are large enough or the endives skinny enough.)  Pour the sauce over the top and add a few little dabs of butter on top.  Then sprinkle the cheese shavings evenly over the whole thing.
- Put the dish into the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top becomes lightly browned.  Check that the endives are tender by sticking them with a knife.
- Grind some fresh pepper over the top and serve in its dish while it’s piping hot.

If you want to enjoy a glass of wine with this, try a crisp white wine, such as a côtes du jura or a riesling.

Obviously this dish will be much more delicious if you work from scratch, grating the nutmeg and parmesan yourself and using the more expensive types of ham.  But you can also make it with packaged sliced cooked ham and pre-grated Parmesan if you’re strapped for time and short on cash.  It’s still a very tasty all-in-one meal that children just may like if you tell them it’s basically cheese and ham.  With the endive being white, they may not even notice it's a vegetable.