Sunday, February 23, 2014

Out & About: Exhibits - Cartier: Le style et l'histoire

For all you ladies out there - and you gentlemen who enjoy a handicraft well executed - here’s a brief trip through the history of the famed jeweler, Cartier.
     When I got to Paris this time, I had to renew my press card.  And that office is near the Grand Palais, which seems to always have at least one show at any given moment that’s fascinating. Here I had a choice between the photos of Raymond Depardon and the jewels of Cartier. Like Robert Frost in his “Road Not Taken”, I didn’t have enough time to “travel both” so I chose Cartier and kept Depardon “for another day”... which ended up never coming, as Frost already knew, because “way leads on to way” and it closed before I got back to it.

Daisy Fellowes
Built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, the Grand Palais owes its longevity to its vastness, which makes it perfect for art exhibits.  There are often as many as three running at one time.
     “Cartier - Style and History” is small by Grand Palais standards.  It takes up just part of one level: the Salon d’Honneur.  But what it lacks in size it makes up for in sparkle.
     As jewels are small, compared to canvases, over 600 pieces are on display.  That’s just a smattering of all the creations that built Cartier’s reputation as “jeweler to kings”.  And queens.  And the wealthy.
Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor
     Its various shops around the world have filled the hunger for glitter of generations.  In addition to New York, Cartier set up a shop in Russia, but unfortunately only a short time before the Revolution sent its clients fleeing for their lives... many of them to Paris - where they were conveniently closer to the store on rue de la Paix - but perhaps without the funds to buy as much as before.  Luckily India’s rajahs - or rather ranees - were also excellent customers.
Cigarette case
     Stretching back to its birth in Paris in 1847, Cartier has worked its magic not only in jewelry but also in the decorative arts.  All facets of its craftsmanship are on display here, and all the styles they have followed (or defined!) over the generations, from the founder Louis-François to son Alfred and on to grandsons Pierre, Louis and Jacques.  Cartier’s jewelry has evolved in tune with fashion, from the curves of the Belle Epoque to the straight lines of the Roaring Twenties to the animal fantasies that followed.
     For instance, did you know that Art Déco owes a lot to Cartier? Or that Cartier invented the men’s wristwatch?  Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont complained that fob watches weren’t practical when flying up in the air, so his friend Louis invented the Santos.
     In addition to the wristwatch, these showcases are gorged with the jewels of some of the world’s most famous women.  Kate Middleton wore a Cartier tiara on her wedding day.  And of course Liz Taylor, wearing the huge diamond Richard Burton bought for her.  French poet cum playwright cum filmmaker Jean Cocteau called upon Cartier to bejewel him a ceremonial sword for his entry into the illustrious Académie Française.
Princess Grace's tiara

     The beloved Princess Grace of Monaco has an entire showcase, complete with her official portrait wearing the jewels you can see to the left and right.  Prior to Grace came the infamous American divorcee Wallis Simpson, by whom scandal arrived in the United Kingdom when she told King Edward VIII to choose between her and the throne.  He abdicated.  And she got a showcase full of Cartier “trinkets”, including the jeweler’s trademark panther.
     Among the lesser-knowns included in this show is Daisy Fellowes, who inherited Grandpa Singer’s sewing machine fortune and seems to have spent a good deal of it chez Cartier.
Mexican actress Maria Felix
     For the history buffs among you, written documents and photographs from the archives give a more complete, in-depth view of the history of the famous jeweler.
     Although the Cartier dynasty’s control ended in 1972, the generations of jewelers who worked their magic are on view in Paris, where it all started.

There’s a half-hour video about the show.  It’s in French but there are subtitles in English.  And visuals.  Lots and lots of visuals.

Cartier - Le style et l’histoire

Grand Palais
3 avenue du Général-Eisenhower
75008 - Paris
Métro:  Champs-Elysées - Clemenceau

until February 16, 2014

12€ & 9€

Daily except Tuesdays and holidays
10 am to 8 pm (Sun & Mon)
10 am to 10 pm (Wed-Sat)

As an extra prize, when I came out of the exhibit, the mounted police were packing up for the day.  Two sleek chestnut horses had been divested of their saddles and were waiting patiently for their carriage back to the stables (which are near the Bastille).  Their patience is notorious because along the Champs-Elysées drivers are also notorious for their speed and their... impatience.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood: Jacky Gaudin

There used to be lots of butcher shops in my neighborhood.  Why, there were four on the block where I used to live - if you walked around all four sides - including a boucherie chevaline, which is a butcher who sells only horsemeat.  (I know, it sounds barbaric, but it tastes like a steak, only sweeter, and I only ever ate one.  You can hardly find them anymore, although you do still see the old gilded horsehead over a few shop doors that now sell clothes or jewelry or other inedible objects.)
  Today butcher shops are fewer and farther between.  The main blame can be put squarely on supermarkets.  Even the food-picky French like one-stop shopping, and they seem to be willing to settle for lesser quality nowadays... especially if it’s offset by a lower price.
  I myself go to my local mini-supermarket for the staples:  sugar, flour, napkins, juice...  But not for my meat.  I guess I’m just a stickler for taste and freshness.
  On the rue Lepic, my former butcher - Monsieur Bénard - is long gone, even though his sign is still there over the window of the food specialties shop where now you can buy as little as 10 grams of cumin seed, weighed out into a miniature cellophane sachet.  Farther down rue Lepic there’s a rotisserie specializing in poultry.  And then there’s the little lady who sells products from the Auvergne region, but she limits herself to boudin (blood sausage) and cold cuts.  The only real butcher on rue Lepic is a franchise outlet of Boucherie Roger with low prices and equally low quality.
  Rue Lepic runs downhill from the once-food-resplendent rue des Abbesses, but now there’s only one butcher left on its entire length.  And that’s Jacky Gaudin, the self-proclaimed (and rightly so) roi des bouchers de Montmartre - the king of Montmartre’s butchers
Gaudin bought his shop from another butcher, who had in turn bought it from another butcher... and the lineage runs all the way back to when the building was built around 1870 or so.  He’s been there for 18 years now.
  But Montmartre wasn’t always his home.  Gaudin moved to Paris from the Maine-et-Loire region well to the south, where he started his two-year apprenticeship at age 15.  When he earned his knives, he moved to the resort town of La Baule on the Atlantic coast and later on to Paris.  He explains that in those days you were told you absolutely had to go to the capital to learn all the different cuts of meat, but adds that that’s no longer the case.
  So to Paris he came.  And of all the shops on the market that he could have bought, this one on the sunny side of the rue des Abbesses in Montmartre looked like it was the best location.  The most promising.  And judging by the line outside his door, he made the right choice.

Of course, the quality of his goods and services has a lot to do with that.  And the accueil as well - the welcome you get when you cross his doorstep.  Take Marguerite for instance, one of his first-name-basis regulars who has just bought quite a lot of meat.  When she pays her 30€ bill all in coins, the staff teases, “You’ve been singing on street corners again.”
Still, no amount of joviality can make up for bad service or tough meat.  And you’ll find neither here.  Service is quick and professional, yet friendly.  When I ask how many people work there, Jacky looks around, counts on his fingers and says “seven”.  “Including you?” I ask.  “Eight and nine,” he corrects, with a smile, “with my wife and me.”  Mrs. Gaudin is behind the cash register every morning, the traditional position of trust in any French family business.   There’s another lady who takes over in the afternoons, and the rest of the staff are butchers, both young and old.  They can answer any meat-cooking question you throw at them, and even offer meal suggestions.
  As for the goods, the meat is delivered on a daily basis.  Which isn’t surprising, given the number of different products on offer.  And as for the beef, well you can see a photo of it while it was still a cow - it’s right there on the wall, along with its ID number and the name and address of the farmer who raised the animal, the date of its demise, and even a copy of the “livestock passport” delivered by a state veterinarian to show it was free from disease.   The French seem to have adopted the old Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify”.
  And part of the trust comes from the fact that much of the work is done before your very eyes.  While I wait in line, Jacky takes a huge long roast of beef, cuts off the amount the lady needs for her eight guests, lovingly swathes it in barde (strips of fat) to keep it moist during roasting and ties the whole thing up like a Christmas package.  Deeming it too heavy for his customer, he even comes around the counter and places it gingerly in her shopping caddy himself.  Try to get that at a supermarket!  Quite a show, and proof of his title: “king of Montmartre butchers”.
  But his talents don’t end there.  Gaudin makes all the sausages himself.  The various pâtés come from an artisan he’s known for ages.  And there’s a wide selection of cold cuts from different places:  viande des grisons (air-dried beef) from Switzerland, lonzo (dry-cured pork fillet) from Corsica, Spanish chorizo and Danish salami, as well as Canadian-style bacon ready to fry up.
  If you don’t feel much like cooking, Gaudin also prepares veal scallops milanaise (breaded) as well as veal cordon bleu, which is a thin scallop topped with a slice of ham and another of Swiss cheese, then folded over and breaded.  All you need to do with either is brown them in a little butter and you’re all set.  Perfect for a busy day.
  Aside from all the different meats, you’ll also find accessories such as cooked sauerkraut (so you don’t have to spend hours and stink up the house), grated carrot salad, céleri remoulade (grated celery root with a zesty mayonnaise-y sauce) or taboule.  And don’t forget to pick up a half dozen tiny quail’s eggs; he has those, too!
  I asked Jacky what he would have liked to be, if he hadn’t become a butcher.  His immediate answer:  “A blacksmith.”  He would have liked to work with farm equipment.  After all, his roots are in the countryside.
  But I’m glad he changed his mind and moved to my neighborhood.

Jacky Gaudin
50 rue des Abbesses
75018 - Paris

Tuesday - Saturday 7 am to 1 pm & 3:30 to 8 pm
Sunday - 7 am to 1 pm

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Year of the Horse

The Great Wall.
Mao Zedong.
Kung pao, wonton, foo yung, lo mein, moo goo gai pan...
and maybe the Chinese zodiac.
That's all many people know about China.

2014 is the Year of the Horse.  It comes around every twelfth year, because the Chinese horoscope has twelve signs, just like the Western zodiac has twelve months.  (Funny, that!)  The Chinese see the Horse as energetic, bright, warm-hearted, intelligent and able.  Horse signs like to communicate and enjoy the limelight. They’re clever, kind to others, cheerful, perceptive, talented, earthy, exceedingly witty, but stubborn and overly talkative.  (Sounds a bit like our Leos.)
     You may be wondering where I’m going with this, given that I write about France. Well, there is a huge Chinese colony here in Paris, mostly originating from northeast China. The last census counted 2% of the Paris population as being Chinese; that’s about 44,000 people.  France, as a whole, has the largest overseas Chinese community in Europe (if you don’t count Russia), surprisingly surpassing the UK, which comes in second.
     A large part of the 13th arrondissement - the left-bank neighborhood of Manhattan-esque high-rise apartment buildings - is called Chinatown, and you’ll see it if you take a stroll around.  Signs in Chinese characters, even neon ones.  All kinds of wholesale foods for sale, including the banned shark’s fin.  Chinese pharmacies with strange concoctions and exotic dried herbs claimed to cure any affliction.  Shops selling traditional oriental dresses for the ladies, complete with slit skirt and Mao collar (which pre-existed Chairman Mao).  Any number of Chinese restaurants.
     The police have sometimes said this arrondissement has the lowest crime rate in all of Paris, and evil-thinkers say that’s because the Chinese take care of their own business and settle their own affairs... which may be partially true.  At any rate, as an ethnic group, the Chinese usually keep a low profile.
     Except on Chinese New Year.  Which it just was on Friday, January 31st.
     This not being a holiday in France, there were celebrations scheduled for the week-end.  And not just in Chinatown, although that’s where the main parade meanders.  There are other ones in the Marais, including in front of City Hall, and in Belleville, Edith Piaf’s home turf which has been attracting the overflow from Chinatown for a while now.
     These parades include cultural groups that play traditional instruments, women who demonstrate fan and parasol dances that probably haven’t been performed in China since the Old Regime left (although they might be perpetuated in Taiwan).  There are firecrackers galore, tied together in noisy bouquets, and that’s the part I hate, whether it’s Chinese New Year or Bastille Day.  I know they’re supposed to keep the evil spirits away, but I don’t like them anyway.  In addition to that, the festivities have drums enough to warrant ear plugs.  And color?  Reds and golds, sunny yellows and lurid greens.  Candies are thrown to the children, and toy coins to all along the parade route, a wish for prosperity throughout the coming year.

By the time the parade at the Hôtel de Ville starts, the thermometer is inching upward toward a royal 50°F (10°C), which Paris hasn’t seen in a while.   And the sun is out, which also hasn’t happened in a while.  So the Chinese would tell you the year’s off to an auspicious start.  Which is a good thing, because the horoscope isn’t all sweetness and light for 2014.
     A crowd gathers in front of City Hall to see the show. I get there early enough to be in the front row.  I even have time to strike up a running conversation with the man on my right, a Frenchman who used to live in Chinatown.  He’s an unlikely candidate to be here, seeing as the rest of the crowd is made up either of Yuppies with children or Orientals with children.  He’s alone, his grey hair almost shoulder-length and every one of his fingers has a silver ring on it, kind of his own private version of a knuckle sandwich.  One of the rings is a skull-and-crossbones.  The only thing missing from his persona is a Harley, and he may well have parked it around the corner.  He’s a sweet guy nonetheless, as sweet as the nice old white-haired French lady on my left.  With me, we make a trio.  A Chinese television anchorman drops by with a ni-how but opts to interview his compatriots farther down the line, which is a good thing because ni-how is pretty much it for my Chinese.
   The show is presented on the ice-skating rink City Hall sets up every year now.  A red carpet has been spread over part of the ice, and gradually, with help from the sun, it gets soggier and soggier, changing from bright red to dark scarlet.  But the entertainers don’t seem to notice, busy, as they are, with bringing the East to the West.  For starters, strong young men banging on huge Chinese drums and pretty, pony-tailed girls ching-ing away on cymbals provide music for the dragons to dance to.  Then come more pandas than there must be left in the wild, but I saw these ones earlier minus their heads.  Next are lissome ladies performing that fan dance I mentioned.  (Nothing like Sally Rand’s fan dance!)  And then more dragons, of different colors and more musicians.
     By that point I’m getting a sunburn and the people behind me have pushed in so tight that it’s not fun any more. Besides, the show part is almost over, after which the parade will disappear, wending its way through the narrow streets of the Marais, drumming and cymbaling and dancing and firecrackering for hours.  It’s time to head home.
     Whatever comes down the pike, Chinese 2014 came in with a bang (of firecrackers) and was enjoyed by all, Orientals and Westerners, who have learned that Chinese New Year is nothing if not spectacular!

If you want to make a traditional Chinese New Year feast, let me pass on what I’ve been told by my various Oriental friends.  You’ll need some sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf.  And a gâteau du bonheur - a happy cake - because if you want the year to be sweet you have to eat sweet things on this first day.  You’ll also need some lotus seeds so you'll have many children.  And don’t forget a clementine for prosperity.

For a video of the parade, try the link below.  I'm still not sure which of those masks is the wooden horse, and one wonders what they do for The Year of the Pig or the Sheep, although the Year of the Monkey should be fun!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Recipe of the month: crêpes - La fête de la Chandeleur

Although Paris is rarely as cold as Michigan, or even as other parts of France, the City of Light is resolutely grey and damp during the winter months.  Parisians are eager for any scrap of light or warmth.
     Enter la Fête de la Chandeleur.  February 2.
     As with so many feast days, this one has two sides to its story:  a Christian one and a pagan one.  Unlike the chicken and the egg, we know which came first.
     Let’s attack the subject backwards.  The Christian holy day commemorates Mary bringing Jesus to the synagogue 40 days after his birth, as Leviticus required, him being the first-born son.  Later, the 14th century Catholic church linked this day to the Purification of Mary on February 2nd.  In both cases, candles were used to keep Evil at bay.  But that’s Chapter 2.  Let’s flip back to Chapter 1:  the pagans.
     In France, the Fête de la Chandeleur is celebrated with crêpes.  And therein lies the link to the pagan side of the feast day.  Pagans worshiped the Sun.  Especially in the middle of winter, when cold winds blew and the sky was perpetually grey and it seemed like the Sun would never shine again to warm Mother Earth and breathe life back into Nature.  The Celts held a festival on the first of February where they walked through the fields, torches held high, asking the goddess of fertility to purify the earth and make it fruitful.  To bring back the Sun.  And what could better represent the Sun than a crêpe?  It’s round.  It’s pale yellow.  It’s warm.  And it’s nourishing.
     Other pagans held a Festival of the Bear, which came out of hibernation around this time, much like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who comes out - also on February 2nd - to see whether spring is here yet.  They, too, felt early February was a good date for a sun festival.  So there was already a long tradition of a feast day around this season when the Christians started to proselytize.
     Winter.  Cold.  Dormant nature.  Lore mixed and melded with religion.  Out of it came a symbol that everyone, even the poorest, could adopt.  And the winner was the lowly crêpe.

If you want to perpetuate the tradition - or just enjoy a mouthful of paper-thin sweetness, here’s the recipe, (although every mother has her own to hand down to her children):

1 cup flour
3 T butter
2 cups milk
3 eggs
2 T water
1 T rum or vanilla (or lemon or orange zest)
4 T sugar
pinch of salt

- Heat the milk to a boil.  Take it off the burner and add the butter.  Leave it to cool.
- Put the flour in a large bowl.  Make a “well” in the center of the flour and break the eggs into the well, one by one.  Whisk thoroughly.
- Add the pinch of salt and the sugar, then the water, then the flavoring (or zest).  Slowly whisk in the cooled milk.  The batter should have no lumps.  If it does, just strain them out.
- Let the batter sit in the refrigerator for an hour.

Now you’re ready to get down to business. Take an 8" frying pan (non-stick helps) and melt a little nugget of butter.  When it starts to sizzle, pour in just a ladleful of batter.  Make sure the crêpe is almost paper thin. Wiggle the pan around to fill in any holes.  As soon as the edges turn golden and bubbles form and start to pop - which is just about immediately - work it free with a spatula and flip it for just the few seconds it takes to finish up that side.  Sprinkle plain sugar over the top - or spread jam or Nutella... or dribble on a bit of Grand Marnier - and fold the crêpe in half and then in half again.  Eat it while it’s piping hot.
You can make a stack of crêpes ahead of time and keep them warm in the oven.  Then fold them as you serve them up.
  But the French like to all gather around the stove and watch the show.  Especially as the trick is to flip them, not with the spatula, but with a flick of the wrist.  If you manage to flip your crêpe without dropping it on the floor or sticking it to the ceiling, and if you do it with a coin in your other hand (traditionally a louis d’or, but I doubt if you have any of those laying about), then you’ll have good fortune for the entire year.