Saturday, December 31, 2011

Recipe of the month: Bouchées aux fruits de mer

In France, the holiday season is a little bit different than in America, but still very recognizable. Santas listen to children’s wish lists in department stores. Bell ringers shiver by cauldrons to gather money for good works. Christmas trees are decorated and gifts are exchanged. Cards, however, aren’t sent in December for Noël but rather in January, with best wishes for the new year: health, wealth, love and happiness... not necessarily in that order.
     As to big meals, Christmas Eve - or Day - is when the family gets together around the table. Friends will gather to welcome in the new year with a meal on the feast day of St. Sylvester, La Saint Sylvestre. And what a feast it is!
     People start arriving around ten on New Year’s Eve and nibble on little appetizers and flute upon flute of champagne until everyone is comfortably caught up with the old year’s events. The meal proper starts around midnight with either an onslaught of oysters on the half shell or sometimes a complete platter of shellfish... or you could just go with the tried and true smoked salmon. That’s followed by the inevitable foie gras, with or without truffles. Then you move on to the fish dish: often a whole fish, poached, such as a turbot or sea bass. After that you come to the plat de résistance: a roasted meat such as turkey or roast beef. Any vegetables served with the meat will probably be either green beans with almonds, or else a pureed something (celeriac, turnips, chestnuts...). With the finish line in sight, you move on to a salad, then the cheese platter and finally a bûche (Yule log) or other ice cream-based dessert such as a baked Alaska, which they call omelette norvégienne (although I’m not sure it really came from Norway originally). And coffee, of course, as it’s usually about 3 or 4 a.m. by then!
     Somewhere in all that came the famous trou normand, an apple sherbet a-swim in calvados, a particularly potent apple brandy from Normandy. It is reputed to open up the appetite for the remaining rounds. No mean feat, but it does help.
     This month’s recipe - bouchées aux fruits de mer - is somewhat like a vol au vent, and a traditional favorite for festive occasions. So try it to start out what I hope will be a very Happy New Year!

N.B. The seafood in this recipe is mussels, small shrimp and calamari. If you have a last minute situation, you can use frozen, especially as I already use frozen puff pastry shells.  It makes for a delicious yet fast appetizer!

For 4:
  • 1 lb (450 g) seafood
  • 4 oz (100 g) small mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 can lobster bisque
  • 2 T butter + some more to sautée the mushrooms
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 T cognac
  • salt
  • pepper
  • nutmeg

- If using frozen seafood, defrost it in advance.
- If the puff pastry shells are frozen, follow the instructions on the box so that they are ready when the seafood filling is done. If they’re not frozen, just heat them until they’re golden.
- Meanwhile, lightly sautée the mushrooms in butter but don’t let them color more than just golden.
- Then poach them, along with the seafood, in the lobster bisque for 5 minutes. Strain them, retaining the bisque.
- Melt 2 T of butter. Add 1 T of flour and cook for 1 min, stirring well. Add in enough of the lobster bisque to make a thick sauce. Stir in the cognac and a pinch of nutmeg and simmer for 3 minutes. Salt & pepper to taste.
- Remove the top of the puff pastry shells and fill them with the seafood mix. If you have some left over, serve a bit on the side. Serve immediately.

Accompany with a dry white wine, such as a cabernet sauvignon or even champagne.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joyeux Noël

Notre-Dame de Noël
I was going to write something Christmas-y, but decided to spend the day with my family instead. After all, over the past twenty years, we’ve been scattered a lot across the globe and Christmas has been sadder for it.
     So here’s a quick something, a mishmash of memories of Christmases Past.

French Christmas for me is part aroma, especially marrons chauds - steaming chestnuts from little pushcarts rigged out with a charcoal burner, meted out with a wooden measuring scoop that varied in size according to the money you held out. Sold in little paper bags, the vendor always popped in an extra one just before handing it to you... to show what good guy he was. Those chestnuts were tasty, and they kept your hands warm, even if they blackened your fingers as you peeled them.
The only bûche I ever made
     French Christmas is also the amazing bûche de Noël you see in every bakery window, a genoise cake spread with vanilla or chestnut or coffee-flavored cream, rolled up and decorated to look like the Yule log thrown on the fire in olden days to burn through this magic night, even while you’re at Midnight Mass.
     And speaking of that, French Christmas is the Midnight Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral, crowded with believers and non-believers alike, Parisians and tourists. But you'd better dress warmly because the cold radiates up through the paving stones and through the soles of your shoes, and the draft that makes the candles flicker magically will also insinuate itself down the neckline of your fashionable décolleté.

The first Christmas spent with my newborn December French baby was a magical one. It involved a very small potted Christmas tree, which I gave to friends afterward to plant in their garden. There were no ornaments bought - our budget didn’t allow for that. But we popped some popcorn and strung it together. And decked the tree with my only string of pearls. I found a few candy canes at the pâtisserie, and the corner shop sold one brand of pudding with a twisty thing on the top of the can that opened up into a spiral, cranberry colored on one side and metallic silver on the others. Although we didn’t light them, we festooned the tiny branches with some left-over white birthday candles. Significant Other cut a star out of cardboard and covered it in aluminum foil, and we hung it on the very top of the mini-tree. It was one of the prettiest Christmas trees I’ve ever had. I kept those spirals and the star until I moved, and then they got lost in the move. Or maybe they’re still packed away somewhere in my Montmartre basement.

Boulevard Haussmann
     Christmas in Paris when my children were small always involved a trip to the departments stores on the Boulevard Haussmann, where Galeries Lafayette vied with Printemps to see who could create the most amazing store windows. Every single one of them was animated with toys and mannequins amid a décor worthy of a dream. The stores built little raised platforms that ran the whole length of the windows so that children could see close up. I hate to think how many noseprints were cleaned off those windows every morning. The adults among us - who were children at heart - were every bit as mesmerized as the children accompanying us. It must have cost the stores a fortune to create, but I’m sure they made it back - and more! - from parents being begged to death for the things their children saw in those windows: dolls, train sets, stuffed toys...
     Another Christmas I remember was one here in Ann Arbor, when I flew in from France with both children, now school age, to keep a good friend company on his first post-divorce Christmas. It didn’t seem right for him to be alone, so we came to be the seasonal distraction. Somehow Santa found us even over here. (My friend is now remarried and a proud grandfather of three!)

Rue Lepic,
in Montmartre
Christmas is a time for family. And for friends who are like family. Christmas is something you carry with you in your heart.
     I hope all of you had the happiest of all possible Christmases. And that the coming year will bring you "amitié et fortune, amour et santé" - friendship and fortune, love and health.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Arrivederci, Marcello

On December 19, 1996, Italian film star Marcello Mastroianni died in Paris of pancratic cancer at age 72.  That was 15 years ago.
This article was written then.
I was lucky enough to have met him several times because our children attended the same Montessori school.  Nothing but blind luck, to which I'm eternally grateful for allowing me to see what a warm, simple man he was, a delight to be around.

This is how we parents knew him
Paris is an international city. It tosses together people from many different countries and professions who wouldn't normally meet. Especially if you are half of an international couple and have children with dual citizenship, in which case you seek out an international school, preferably bilingual. That in turn brings an even tighter circle of cosmopolitan opportunities to move outside of what would be your normal circle of acquaintances.
     I was lucky enough to find a bilingual school for my children. And along with the education they got, and a fluency in both French and English that has opened doors to them, I had the great honor of meeting many wonderful parents. One of them was Marcello Mastroianni.
     I saw him many times picking up his daughter, or perched on the uncomfortable chairs designed for the Seven Dwarfs that we always had to sit on at Parents' Nights. Mastroianni always sat there graciously, just another father concerned about what his daughter was experiencing all day and how well she was doing. He listened attentively, asked very few questions, and slipped out unobtrusively when the socializing began. He didn't have to come. The school would have given him a private meeting any time. But he did come. Just another parent.
     I was alone with him only three times in those nine or so years, but each indelible moment in his company was illuminated by his gentle, ironic humor and contagious smile.
     The first time was during an Observation Morning. The principle was to sneak up the back steps and hide in the kitchen. The hatch for passing food into the classroom had been raised about six inches and a few potted plants strategically placed in front of the opening. The lights were left off so that we could see the children, but they couldn't see us (although I suspect some of them caught on). Only one set of parents was allowed to sign up for a given date. Being a one-parent family by that point, I climbed the stairs alone and picked my way among the carving tables and suspended cooking pots to take up my post. A stool had been thoughtfully left for me, so I sat down and started spying through the hatch, between the potted plants, fully expecting to have the whole place to myself for the hour. Suddenly behind me I heard a resounding whisper, hushed but unmistakable. Marcello. He must have been passing through town and so had been slated in with me. For one hour I sat there staring through the crack in the hatch, cheek to cheek with one of the handsomest men in the world. At first it was hard to keep my mind on why I was there, but he soon made me feel at ease. We whispered back and forth, marveling at our respective children, and cross-marveling at the other's. Several times I offered him my stool, but he refused graciously. At the end of the hour, we picked our way back through the pots and pans and down the narrow steps. He offered to drive me to my next appointment. And here I make a confession. Although I have never in my life been what could be called a groupie, I took him up on his invitation. The chauffeur opened the door, I made up a destination across town in the general direction he was going, and off we drove. He was a natural conversationalist, fluent in both French and English in addition to his native Italian. That morning he had eyes only for his daughter. I can still hear that lovely accent: "You understand. I am an old man. My life is finished. Ma... here is this beautiful child who looks at me and says "Papa!". Two tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. And he wasn't acting. We got to my "destination", he helped me out of the car, said he hoped we'd meet again, smiled and drove off, waving out the back window. I hailed a taxi to drive me back to the school to pick up my car. He never found out it had been parked right outside all along.
     The second time was not designed to raise his opinion of my taste in attire. I was at home, cleaning the house, in the usual attire for that job: old jeans and a sweatshirt, hair tied back any old way. The bell rang downstairs. As my daughter was being brought home after school with Mastroianni's daughter, who was invited to play (or maybe it was to stay overnight, I don't remember), I pushed the buzzer and opened the door for them. Expecting them to arrive with the au pair girl, I left our front door open and went back to scrubbing the toilet bowl. Not very poetic, but there you are. I heard the two girls chattering back and forth as they climbed the stairs, then suddenly... that same unmistakable voice. Marcello. He popped his head around the corner, and there I stood, toiletbrush in hand, looking like something the cat dragged in. He smiled at me as if this were exactly what he expected, but I hope it wasn't, then came in to kiss his daughter good bye. I invited him to stay for coffee, but he declined politely and again disappeared with a smile and a wave.
     The last time we met I was betrayed by the natural pandemonium that reigned in our home, as in many single-parent working-mother homes, aided by my wreck of a car, whose front windows never rolled down again after a particularly nasty ice storm that froze them permanently closed. One day I went to school to pick up the kids (my son was part of the act by that time). It was hot and the rear windows, the only functioning ones, were rolled down. There were still crumbs from the breakfast croissants all over the back seat. No sooner did I get inside the school but I heard... Marcello. It was his daughter's birthday and he wanted to take her for a movie and a pizza. Not deterred by the toiletbrush incident, he smiled and asked whether my two children could please come along. I said yes and offered to drive them to the theater, as it was almost curtain time. Then I remembered the broken windows and crumbs! Too late!  As we walked to my wreck, all three children dashed ahead and proceeded to leap in through the open back window. We got in and I sheepishly drove off, complete with broken windows and crumbs. Ever the gentleman, he didn't blink. It could have been a Rolls. My son upheld our family's reputation as eccentrics by pinching all the waiters in the pizzeria on the bum. In his defense, I might point out that he was only four. Instead of throwing them out, all the waiters laughed. What else could they do?  He was with Mastroianni. And Marcello was laughing louder than anyone.
     Marcello Mastroianni was undeniably a great actor. But he was also a warm man, a natural gentleman, and a loving father. A very private person, and one who deserves a private tribute. For me, he will always be that father sitting uncomfortably on the child-size chair at the parents' meeting, a smile on his face and a friendly word for all us fellow parents.
     So thank you, Marcello, for all the joy you brought to my family. You will be missed.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ramblings: Déjà vu all over again

Using foreign languages can be dangerous
"I don’t speak French," my American friend told me. "I’ll come visit you in Paris if you come pick me up in London."
     So I did. And there was no EuroTunnel then. Just two trains and a ferry.
     At the B&B behind Waterloo Station, there was an unpleasant Frenchman who came down to breakfast in his PJs and bathrobe, much to the chagrin of his wife. He refused to sit at his assigned table, although Embarrassed Wife was already buttering her toast there, and he moved them both to what he considered a more suitable table. My friend and I looked on. Later, when we were ready to check out, we found the owner talking to Mr. Horrible through the door, repeating, slowly and loudly, "Are you staying the night?" He kept muttering "Comprends pas" from behind the closed door. After the poor patient woman’s third attempt, I went over to her side and translated, through the door, in accentless French, "Elle veut savoir si vous restez la nuit." After a pregnant pause, the door opened and he excused himself to me, stammering No, he wasn’t. And merci.

I tell you this story only to say that people have trouble with foreign languages. When I reached Paris with a French degree in my pocket, I took a furnished apartment. The only can-opener it had was what military personnel call a John Wayne, one of those little foldable triangles that you’re supposed to be able to clip over a lid and sashay it around until the top opens. Never could get it to work. But I was undaunted. I had a degree in French and there was a quincaillerie, a hardware store, just down my street. The bell tinkled as I went in, the man asked what he could do for me. "I would like... I would like..." Suddenly I realized, with horror, that I knew how to discuss Montaigne’s essays and could dissect the plays of Corneille or the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. But I had no idea what "can-opener" was in French. That hadn’t been part of the curriculum.
     Still only mildly undaunted - I had a college degree in French, didn’t I? - I decided I should just tell him what I wanted it for: to open a can. So I switched gears, smiled and said, "I want to open... I want to open..." And then it became clear that I didn’t know the word for "can". A boîte was made of paper or wood; a bouteille was glass. What was metal? No idea!
     But I knew the word for "peas", so my only option was to swallow my pride and say, "I bought some peas and I want to open them" while miming the appropriate gesture.
     "Ah, un ouvre-boîte!" he exclaimed. And sold me one.
     I’ve never forgotten that word.

     Many people tell me they don’t speak French. They wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did with my hermetically-sealed can.
     And yet... there are a lot of French words running around our English-speaking world. There’s rendez-vous, which means a date or an appointment. There’s RSVP, which people know means you must reply to an invitation... even if they don’t know it means "Répondez s’il vous plaît". You might know a two-income family who has an au pair to take care of their children during the day or someone who was one abroad.
     There are terms of diplomacy, such as détente and entente cordiale, chargé d’affaire and carte blanche. There are military terms such as aide-de-camp, and also esprit de corps, although I think that’s used less nowadays.
     People who are ahead of their time in any field are said to be avant-garde. And you can call someone who tripped over their own feet gauche. If someone doesn’t know which one is the shrimp fork at an elegant dinner and eats with their fingers, you can say they made a faux-pas. If you meet an attractive blonde or brunette, you might say they had a certain je ne sais quoi and send them a billet-doux or maybe a bouquet. Or if you were a historian, you might study coups in foreign countries. Or in earlier times, look for the power behind the throne with a debonnaire cry of "cherchez la femme!" Unless you’re just too blasé, of course.
     In the world of cuisine (itself a French word), the French language is omnipresent. Your meal might be preceded by an apéritif. After that you could order à la carte, meaning anything on the menu, such as potatoes au gratin, if there’s grated cheese on the top. And many people eat their pie à la mode, which doesn’t really mean "with ice cream", but rather "in the fashion of..." Or you might find a roast beef sandwich au jus, which is a term I never heard in France because they don’t use it any more. And you might polish off your meal with some chocolate éclairs.
     If you are very cultivated, and not just a bourgeois, you might have furnished your home with an armoire or a bureau. You might choose to flop into a chaise-longue to nurse your ennui after a hard day at the office studying dossiers submitted by various entrepreneurs. Then you would splash on some eau de Cologne or eau de toilette, slip on your haute couture dress and put your hair up in a chignon and your chauffeur might drive you down your cul-de-sac to the ballet (and yes, that is French) or to a soirée or to the movies to see a cinéma vérité in black-and-white. And when you return home hungry, you might dip into your cache of chocolate bonbons. All of which is very chic.
     Well, I’d better end my chef d’oeuvre there. As you can see, there’s a lot of French running around in the English language. But en garde! I’ve only gotten to the letter "e"!

It works both ways. 
Sometimes you find English inside French, too.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In the Rear-view Mirror: Corot stolen from Louvre

As it's getting on to Christmas (or Your-Holiday-of-Choice) and I'm behind in my wrapping of presents and writing of cards, BUT as I want to keep up a certain rhythm here in Sandy's France, I've decided to cheat and post a few old articles published over the now not so recent past to keep the flow going.  I hope you don't mind and will find them interesting.  Stay tuned for new stuff, because it'll be in here.  Just as soon as I become disentangled from all this gift paper, Scotch tape and colored ribbon.

     Here's one from July 1999, when I was minding my own business, visiting the Louvre Museum, when all of the sudden...  Bells went off, massive doors swung shut and we were all locked in.
     Being the curious sort, and already free-lancing for a newspaper, I set out to find out what was going on.  And this is what I learned.

PARIS - A painting by the French artist Corot was stolen today from the Louvre Museum in Paris, and thousands of people were detained as police attempted to search all visitors.
     The painting, "Le Chemin de Sèvres", was taken from its frame in a small room on the second floor of the Sully Wing around noontime, but the theft was only reported an hour and a half later. Visitors in the immediate area were searched, then allowed to continue their visit. The decision was finally made to close all exits to the museum shortly after two o'clock and the 20,000 to 30,000 visitors who had taken advantage of the Louvre's free admission Sunday were blocked in the vast Pyramid entrance hall.
     After nearly an hour and a half milling about with no explanation broadcast, the crowd turned angry and tried to force its way through the police line barring the stairs to the exit. The police shouted for people to move back after two small children were nearly asphyxiated. Fearing an incident like the Heyssel stadium in Belgium, where soccer fans were crushed to death by the crowd, officers then began lifting children to safety and escorting older and ailing visitors outdoors where medical units, including a reanimation van, were waiting to treat them. Shortly after that visitors were funneled up the stairway leading out of the Pyramid and searched one by one by reinforcements called in.
     Meanwhile Room 66 was cordoned off as police detectives searched for clues and museum curators were called in to assess the damage. One museum expert reported that fibers had been found on the empty frame, but no suspects were arrested and by 5 o'clock, with the picture still missing, the last of the visitors had been evacuated.
     "These people were very organized," a museum official said. "They found a loophole in the system."
     Orders went out for all museum guards to remain on the job and search the miles of corridors that are home to one of the largest art collections in the world. The museum will probably remain closed at least through Monday as the search continues amid hopes that the thief was unable to spirit the painting out of Louvre and it is still hidden somewhere on the premises.
     Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot is one of the most famous French painters of the 19th century and a founder of the Barbizon School of artists. The stolen canvas, worth several million francs, was a landscape of Sèvres, one of the cities just outside of Paris.
     This is the most valuable painting stolen from the Louvre since the Mona Lisa went missing several years ago. It was later recovered and is now on view behind glass, unlike all the other paintings in the museum.

This all bubbled back to the surface with an item I stumbled upon yesterday. Since this theft, a famous French art thief, Stéphane Breitwieser, who fancies himself to be the "Arsène Lupin of museums", was 
arrested in 2001 for the theft of 230 paintings and objets d'art from European museums during an 8-year spree. And then released in 2005 after serving four years in a Swiss prison.  French newspaper Libération revealed that in a letter Breitwieser wrote from prison, he says he is the one who stole the Corot from the Louvre, but doesn't say what happened to it or where it is. Just that it is one of 50 thefts he committed in addition to the 230 that he confessed to.  But it's one that he doesn't include in his 360-page memoirs, Confessions d'un voleur d'art  (360 pp., Ed. Anne Carrière, 2006).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On the Road: Lyon's Automaton Museum

Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris"
When you travel in France, there’s always a little jewel that you discover.
     On my last trip to Lyon, I stumbled upon two lines in a magazine about a Musée des Automates, a museum with automated... automated what? They’re not toys. And they’re not puppets. But they are amazing and amusing.
   As this museum was just across the river from Brasserie Georges where I had lunch, I walked across the footbridge and hunted it out in the maze of medieval streets of Old Lyon.  You could easily walk past it because it looks just like so many other shops on the rue St. Georges. But inside it’s warm and bright, an atmosphere created by some Geppetto-like craftsman who loves to tinker with figures and make them come to life... and then can’t bear to part with any of them.
First automaton
      It all started after the war, in 1946, with two men who made these little figures to be sold or rented to store owners for their window displays. Then, in 1991 - maybe when all these little folk came back home to live, like college graduates - the museum was created. There were only four rooms then, but the craftsmen kept turning out these "little people", who took on a life of their own.
     The process for making an automaton starts with the design. And then two different work phases take over: the mechanical work (gears, wiring, etc.) and the aesthetic work (modeling of the faces, especially). Finally, the finishing touches are added: costumes for the figures and a decor for the setting.
The Enchanted Flute

The result is 250 automatons bringing to life 20 different scenes, many from movies or historic events. Everything moves, down to the smallest detail. There’s Mozart’s Enchanted Flute and Millet’s Angelus, for the culturally-minded among the visitors. Literary figures include Gargantua and Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, complete with Quasimodo, Esmeralda and her dancing goat. Movies are well represented too, with Peter Pan and Pinocchio and Pagnol’s card game. Plus there’s a circus.
Peter Pan
     Many of the scenes have a little touch of humor - a crocodile that moves in and out of a cave to attack Captain Hook or a tiny mouse that hides in a huge Swiss cheese as a worker drills the holes in it. And of course there’s Guignol, the puppet created here in Lyon and who now entertains children in puppet theaters across all of France.

Guignol, Lyon's own puppet star
      The "little people" chortle and whirr as visitors wander through the seven different rooms. Some scenes are more obvious to the French, but they all can be enjoyed. Harvesting wheat or grapes or making bread or hams or silk can be understood by everyone. And only the parents would care about that anyway; the children are just enthralled by the "moving little people", as one child called them while I was there.
Pagnol's card game
     It’s a fun hour, especially on a rainy day - which mine was. And it helps to keep the Child Within You alive.

P.S. On the way out, you can make some child infinitely happy by buying an animated music box. There are even some that would be suitable for adults.

Admission:  7€ for adults, 6 € for students & children over 11, 5€ for children 3-11

Open daily, 2-6 pm, except for December 25th and May 1st

 Musée des Automates
100 rue St Georges
69005 - Lyon
Phone : (0)4 72 77 75 20
Fax : (0)4 72 77 75 21
Mouse pops in and out
of the cheese hole

Crocodile crawls in and out of cave
to get Captain Hook

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Recipe of the Month: Mendiants

Now here’s a strange name for such a delicious chocolate treat: mendiant, which means beggar. Like most things, there’s a story behind it.
     In the 13th century, after the Crusades, the Roman Catholic Church created four mendicant orders who relied totally on charity, like Buddhist monks. They were beggars of sorts. Then someone made a chocolate and called it mendiant, and decorated it with fruit and nuts chosen to stand for these four orders. There were dried figs for the dark brown robes of the Franciscans, hazelnuts for the reddish brown of the Carmelites, almonds for the white Dominicans and dark Malaga raisins for the black Augustinians.
     Eight centuries later, people are far less religious. Although most of the French are born, baptized, wed and buried in the Catholic faith, these may be the only four times they attend church. For most of them, the connection with the monks has been lost. But they still love these sweet decorated disks of chocolate (sometimes white). They’re as much a part of Christmas in the south of France as the three Rois mages (Wise Men), and are served as the last course in the traditional Christmas meal of Provence, one of the "13 Christmas desserts" mentioned in the works of native son Marcel Pagnol.
     In America, it seems to me this would be perfect for trick-or-treat. After all, the children are begging. But we’ll remain traditional and make them in December, either as holiday gifts or to end a festive meal on Christmas Eve or Day.
     Besides, the decorating is a fun thing to do with children over the school holidays.

8 oz (225 g) of high-quality dark chocolate (at least 60% cacao) - Valrhona is an excellent chocolate for making these mendiants. Ghiarardelli is also good. But even Baker’s will work. Just make sure it’s dark chocolate and at least 60% cacao.
The other traditional ingredients are:
  • whole hazelnuts
  • slivered almonds
  • dried figs, cut in small pieces
  • dark raisins
If you want to branch out a bit, you could use fruit other than figs, such as dried apricots, dried cranberries, and crystallized ginger or fruit peel (orange or lemon). And if you don’t like hazelnuts, try pistachios or walnuts (either whole if you’re making big mendiants, or walnut pieces for smaller ones). The trick is to mix and match the colors, shapes and textures. Prepare the toppings in advance. If you’re using many, you can use a muffin tin to organize them.
     You’ll need a work surface to drop the chocolate on. A marble slab is very professional, but not absolutely necessary. A smooth, cool surface will do. Or even parchment paper. But NOT plastic wrap or aluminum foil.

- Cut your chocolate into smallish pieces and melt it in a bowl set over a small saucepan of hot water on low heat (a bain-marie). Stir it while it melts. Don’t take the microwave shortcut because that often gives the chocolate a dull color and a mealy consistency.
- When the chocolate is melted, take it off the heat. Let it cool until it feels pleasantly warm to your finger. That’s the right temperature. Drop small spoonfuls onto your surface. Shape them into round disks.
- After you’ve made a few, and while the chocolate is still soft, decorate them with the nuts and fruit, so they stick to the surface. Before making more, check the temperature of the remaining chocolate. If it’s gotten too cold and started to set, just put it back over the saucepan of hot water and stir for a bit.
- When you’ve finished a batch, let it rest until the chocolate is completely set. Then you can lift the mendiants carefully off the sheet. Meanwhile you can make another batch.

Makes about 80 pieces

Some people go all high-tech about melting chocolate and have special chocolate-making thermometers. If you’re that way, you’ll want the chocolate to reach 120°F (50°C). Bring the temperature down quickly over an ice bath to 80°F (27°C), then warm it back up to 88°F (31°C). That’s "The Right Way". But you can pretty much do it with the naked eye and a fingertip. The only thing you may lose is a bit of sheen to your chocolate.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On the Road: The Lace Museum of Calais

This was written in July of 2009.
With two hours in Calais between dropping my tourists off at the Dover Ferryport and my train departure back to Paris, I decided to check out the spanking new lace museum, the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle, which moved from the building it shared with the Beaux-Arts Museum in mid-June.
     Industry in northern France has been hard hit by the rise of China and its cheaper-than-anyone goods, leaving many factories boarded up. One near City Hall and Rodin’s famous statue, The Bourgeois of Calais, has been revamped to house all the marvels of the world of lace. The permanent collection covers two entire floors and traces the history of lace-making from its beginnings in the 16th century up to the present.
     In addition to the ticket desk, the main floor houses the requisite gift shop, as well as a library where researchers or just the curious can consult a multitude of books on lace five days a week, plus two ateliers offering activities for children. And if you get hungry, there is a sunny restaurant where you can have a cup of something or even an entire meal, all at reasonable prices.

The remaining two floors cover the history of lace, which was a vital part of the economy of the city of Calais itself. There are dozens and dozens of lace objects of all sorts, starting in the 16th century and continuing to the present. And the space offered by this old factory means that visitors can see some of the old machines used to make the lace once it became a mechanized industry during the Industrial Revolution. Some of those machines are still running, and it’s fascinating to watch the punch-cards (like the ones organ-grinders have) as they unfold and pass in the "looms" to dictate the pattern... then try to imagine that noise multiplied by the hundreds of looms within a workshop.

If you’re in the seaport of Calais on your way to or from England and if you’re interested in fashion - or if you enjoy machines - walk the extra two blocks from the famous Rodin statue and take a look at this page out of France’s history.

Admission: 5 € . Combined with Beaux-Arts Museum: 10 € (valid one week)
Half-price for students, seniors & handicapped.

April 1- October 31: daily from 10 am to 6 pm
November 1 - March 31: daily 10 am to 5 pm
Closed every Tuesday
and on Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25

Cité Internationale de la Dentelle
135 Quai du Commerce - 62100 Calais
Tel: 33 (0)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

Turkeys are not indigenous to France.
     When I got ready to celebrate Thanksgiving in Paris for the first time, I discovered turkeys are hard to come by in November. There are turkeys, but they are programmed to fatten for Christmas. No sooner.
     That first Thanksgiving dinner was intimate. I hadn’t been in my new apartment very long and furniture was limited to a bed, an armchair, a folding chair, a side table and a few unmatched eating utensils. No fridge. And more to the point, no stove. But I bought a roasted chicken hot off the spit from the butcher down the street and heated up the string beans and the canned corn (very hard to find then) alternately on my single-burner butane gas "stove". Cranberries were unknown. We finished off with apple tarts from the baker’s.
     The three guests were classmates from my comparative literature course at the Sorbonne, where we all sat on infinitely hard wooden benches in the same corner of the huge amphithéâtre. Here, my guests and I sat cross-legged on the floor, our "table" a festive tablecloth spread out on the carpeting. There was Sylvie, who had to leave her husband and child behind in what was then Soviet-aligned Czechoslovakia in order to be allowed to leave the country to study at the Sorbonne (hostages to guarantee she would return from France). And there was smart, witty Andreas from Germany, who arrived with an armful of flowers and a bottle of good wine, which was a luxury for us broke students. And there was Christine, a staunch French Communist of Russian extraction from a blue-collar suburb, who at least liked this America but hated our presence in Vietnam. I tried valiantly to explain Thanksgiving to this disparate group - all about Pilgrims and "Indians" and how so many died over that first winter that it wasn’t hard to find something to be thankful for when the harvest came. Still being alive was enough.
                                                             * * * * * * * *

In the years to follow, Thanksgiving was always at my apartment. And the size grew until it was normal to have 20 to 30 guests, which by then included my two children and their friends. It was a regular United Nations. There were, of course, my Americans friends, often with French spouses, and our collection of foreigners grew and mutated from year to year as they cycled in and out of France. There was a British couple who lived two flights down, so they were our token colonial exploiters. And another neighbor, a Lithuanian Jew who moved to France via Israel. Once there was a UNESCO diplomat from Mauritania who was never quite sure which dishes were American and which were French additions to the menu, but thought they were all a bit strange. Plus so many more I can’t remember all of them: Russian, Irish, Italian, Spanish, Algerian, Tunisian... So many countries!
     One year my daughter invited one of her best friends from school. Her mother dropped her off, and I tried to convince her to stay but all she would accept was a glass of egg nog, once I explained it was like Italian zabaglione. She sat and talked to us all for a while and then said her good-byes.
     "She was nice," said Crazy Harry, once she was gone. "Who was she?"
     There was a moment of silence from all 20 of us.
     "Harry," his French wife sighed. "That was Catherine Deneuve."
     "Oh. What does she do?"
     Harry wasn’t a big movie-goer.

When it was time to eat, we needed a bit of ingenuity and some strong arms. Although I had a killer view of the Sacré-Coeur, I had only one small round table, perfect for our family of three but lacking in scope for 20. So we took the living room door off the hinges, removed the doorknob, laid one end of the door on my desk (I had accumulated more furniture by then) and the other on the round table, then covered it all with several festive plastic tablecloths.
     While someone set the "table", Christian and I went down to the baker - who had become my friend over the years - and he took the turkey out of his huge oven, where it had taken only 2 hours to cook to a wonderful golden crispness that I’ve never been able to equal on a domestic stove. He always got the Pope’s Nose as his pay (and if you don’t know what part of the turkey that is, look it up). His wife got a slice of my pumpkin pie later in the day and their daughter a bowl of clam chowder (grandmother’s recipe). Clad in heavy-duty oven mitts, Christian carried The Bird the half-block home and four flights up.
     And then all Hell broke loose. Turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, candied yams, wild rice, corn, cornbread, pumpkin and sometimes mincemeat pies plus Brown Betties. Many of the habitual guests chose something from our traditional menu to bring, so that I didn’t have to cook so much; my stove now had four burners and an oven, but still... Melinda always made the cornbread. Christine or Malilee made the desserts that weren’t pumpkin pie, which was my job - along with the stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Other guests showered us with wine and champagne or flowers and chocolates. We spent hours at the "door-table", remaking the world. Many of those people are my friends to this day.
     Thanksgiving was always marked with a red circle on their respective calendars. Now that I live in America part of the year - and usually all of November - I get hate mail from them complaining that I’ve deserted them and don’t love them any more and that they’re now bereft and turkeyless in a foreign land.
     I miss them, too.

For a humorous explanation of Merci-donnant by columnist Art Buchwald - who worked for many years at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, go to:
A la Recherche du Temps Perdue

Sunday, November 20, 2011

You know you're in France if...

In a wordier version of Jeff Foxworthy’s "You know you’re in....", here’s how I know I’m in France.

I know I’m in France because the street smells of roasted chestnuts and chicken broiling on a spit.
  I know I’m in France because streetsweepers in green overalls and wielding a green broom are sweeping out the gutters and flushing them with water that children like to jump in. And they do it every day.
     I know I’m in France because when I get to the Métro, the line I need to take is perturbé because of a mouvement social. (In France, "social" doesn’t mean "social"; it means "labor".)
     I know I’m in France because there’s a tiny car, a SmartCar, parked perpendicular to all the parallel-parked cars.

     I know because I go to see my old G.P. (general practitioner, or "primary care" doctor in NewSpeak) to get a prescription refilled and he hands me... a bottle of wine. Hands it over like a medical sample. To be fair about the whole thing, it’s wine bottled by his son as part of his apprenticeship as a vintner. Last time I asked, the son was studying anthropology in college, like many intent young Frenchmen oblivious of what use such studies would be in earning a living. But unlike them, he realized he enjoyed old bones and artifacts less than a good glass of wine and switched centers of interest. The wine turns out to be good - light and crystalline - and the cork is real and all of one piece, a rarity nowadays and a mark of seriousness in the wine world. I don’t know what his vin blanc will do for my medical condition, but my taste buds enjoy it. (Also to be fair, the good doctor renewed my prescription.)
     I know I’m in France because I stop by my pharmacist to get the prescription filled and she spends almost 15 minutes filling out papers to get the pills reimbursed by my health care provider, smilingly bending the government rules by making out a sheet for each month... ten in a row... when only one month is allowed at a time. I mean, it’s not an opiate or a barbiturate or any habit-forming medication, but rules are rules. Except in France, where rules are made to be gotten around. There’s even a name for it: the Système D. D for débrouille, which we will call "detour", just to retain the D.
     I know I’m in France because I drop by the same lingerie shop where I always buy my "things" and the owner won’t sell me a bra. I want to buy one, but she won’t sell any to me. They’re all the wrong color for my complexion, she says. Or they make me bulge in the wrong places. In other countries you’d hear, "Perfect! It’s you!" just to make the sale, even if it made you look like a sausage tied up in string. Here you hear, "Ah, non, not for you." Where else would your credit card be politely but firmly refused in the name of bedroom aesthetics?
     And where else would you drop by the old wine shop to say hello and end up toasting the owner’s newborn grandson with champagne in the kitchen behind the salesroom and discussing current events, the pros and cons of the war in Afghanistan? What salesroom would even have a kitchen?

To an American, France will feel familiar, true.
And yet different.
Vive la différence!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The War to End All Wars

Commemoration ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe
I’m too young to remember World War II.  So I’m obviously even more too-young to remember World War I. But if you’ve ever lived a while in France, you know that it’s still alive in many memories passed down from deceased grandfathers.
     Some years ago there was talk of eliminating November 11th - the day the Great War ended - as a French holiday. That raised such a tumult that the holiday was re-instated.
     As today is November 11st - and a special one at that, being 11/11/11 - I thought it would be only proper to... well, to commemorate a bit. So here are a few personal Grande Guerre memories.

It’s often said that France and America have a love-hate relationship. One reason for that animosity is that the United States waited so long to enter both World Wars... and only did so in the Great War when the Germans sank the Lusitania, recasting those hard-working Teutonic Protestants into cold-blooded murdering Krauts. Before then, the war didn’t "concern" Americans. What is now called our "national interests" don’t seem to have been an issue in those isolationist times. Meanwhile, from 1914 to 1917, the carnage was being played out on French soil, and at a very heavy price (see figures below). Every single village, town and city in France has a monument aux morts, a monument to the Fallen dating from the Great War, and it’s heart-breaking to see the same family name carved over and over again. An entire generation of young men was pretty much wiped out, to say nothing of the devastation to the French countryside, as the front line moved back and forth only a few yards during four long years. Forests were decimated, houses were razed by bombing, fields were annihilated.  If the civilian population wasn’t killed by bullets or bombs, they starved to death. Children never grew into normal-sized adults because they had so little to eat during those formative years... and also afterwards, until the fields could be cleared and replanted and coaxed to grow again.
American Embassy in Paris
     Most of France north of Paris was occupied during World War I. Which is why there are many monuments scattered across the countryside. My first months in Paris, I hung out at the American Embassy a lot, hoping to find some help in employment - in vain. What I did find were about two dozen Marines who guarded it, and they had barracks where they held a dance party every Friday night. It cost to get in, unless you were a girl. As my very first apartment was only a few blocks away, I went almost every Friday at first. The music blared - Aretha Franklin mainly - and some of the guys became friends (although I’ve lost track of all of them since). They were a rowdy lot but they adopted me like a little sister, being American and knowing how to dance pretty well.
     One of them, who was a Philippine immigrant and whose name was Mel, was interested in history. He and another Marine decided to visit the World War II battlegrounds, and they asked if I wanted to come along - probably to ask for directions if they got lost because they didn’t speak French. Being Marines, they wanted to see the Memorial overlooking Belleau Wood - the deadliest day in Marine history - and the U.S. cemetery in Chateau-Thierry, where graves marked only by a white cross rippled out in waves. Their number seemed overwhelming (until I saw the American Cemetery above Normandy’s D-Day beaches).
     It was a strange road trip, a mix of fun and melancholy far from home on doubly foreign terrain. And my first taste of what war must be like. I can’t imagine how it felt to these two Marines, fresh from the front lines in Viet Nam.

Three decades later my interpreting career took me back to the battlefields of the Great War, but this time farther north, to the Chemin des Dames near Laon. Dan Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer had an assignment to write about the stand-off in the trenches of World War I. It must have been for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. We drove up and spent the day with a team of démineurs, the men who are still removing land mines and munitions unearthed in the French countryside. First they took us through one of the caves in the chalky bluffs that the Germans used during their three-year occupation. There were still a few metal bed frames from 1914 in the long galleries, wiring still hanging for the overhead lights, and some faded pin-ups painted on the walls. These caves had acted as barracks for both sides in the fight, depending on who held the terrain at that particular moment. We were told to be sure to step exactly where the démineurs stepped and not to slip because there were still munitions lying around - teenagers had found some and so a new sweep had to be made of the cave. They found enough to take outside and blow up, with us visiteurs américains taken off a safe distance to watch.
     Then we had to swing by in the van to pick up a huge shell found by a farmer plowing his field. He had simply hauled it to the side of the road, stood it up on its end, wrapped some red plastic tape around it to mark it and called the squad to come pick it up. Highly dangerous, but these farmers grew up finding such "treasures" again and again. When we talked to the farmer’s father, he said he was just a boy during la Grande Guerre but he remembered always being hungry.
     From there the démineurs took us back to the 17th century fort where they stock all the munitions they find. Some are partially corroded and they don’t know whether there’s dreaded mustard gas inside or just explosives, so special facilities were being built to dispose of these bombs. In the meantime, they just pile them up by category and hope for the best. The munitions from World War II were more clearly marked, much less old, and therefore less dangerous. Our guide even showed me one massive black cannonball left behind by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s!
     And then we went to lunch, where these men all agreed that they wouldn’t want their sons or daughters to follow in their footsteps. It’s too dangerous a job, cleaning up after old wars.

But my first - and only - direct link with la Grande Guerre was Mademoiselle Morelle. This wisp of a women stood about 4'10" and I don’t know how the wind didn’t blow her away. Her blue eyes still sparkled, as did her mind, her hair was always neat and her clothes always fashionable..
     I met her at the neighborhood bookshop just down the street from my apartment in Montmartre. And even though she was in her eighties, she still did her own shopping, but had trouble carrying her groceries back up the hill. So she’d drop by and leave half her bananas and half her pack of yogurts in the bookseller’s fridge - half of everything, really - then pick them up the next day. She always had a kind word to say, and a little song to sing to my then-young children.
     One day I carried her things back up the hill to her apartment, which was like a time capsule. Because Mademoiselle Morelle was a fiancée de la Grande Guerre. That means she was engaged to someone who marched off to war and never came back. It was the fate of well over a million Frenchmen, and many fiancées made a vow never to marry... and never did. She must have been a real beauty in her day and, as I said, she had sparkly eyes, so I find it hard to believe no man ever asked her to marry him. But love was more unrequited then, and there were many, many of these women, these fiancées de la guerre.
     Mademoiselle Morelle was very proud of the Mademoiselle part. Once the bookshop was sold, I ran into her less. The last time I saw her, she was walking ever so slowly, on the arm of one of the aides that the city hall of Paris provides for the elderly. And she was still a Mademoiselle.
     By now she must have passed on, and I like to think she’s been reunited with her dashing young French soldier.


Monument aux Morts
France accounted for 25% of all military deaths among the Entente powers; America only 2%. Most civilian deaths were due to "war-related famine". France totaled 1,697,800 deaths out of an army of 8,410,000 soldiers. That means 4.29% of its population of 39 million. Add on another 4,266,000 severely wounded military and you get a better idea of the devastation. (Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
     Compare that to American losses as quoted by the U.S. Department of Defense: 116,516 (including 53,402 battle deaths and 63,114 non-combat deaths, mostly from the Spanish flu.) The Coast Guard lost an additional 192 dead.. Estimated American civilian losses include 128 killed on the RMS Lusitania, as well as 629 Merchant Marine personnel killed on merchant ships.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cock-a-doodle-Dos and Don’ts

In France, whose national symbol is a proud rooster, there’s a right and a wrong way to do everything.
     A good French upbringing teaches all little French children that they are superior to the rest of humanity because they alone know How to Behave. It is the cultural equivalent of the Great Wall of China; it is meant to keep out the barbaric hordes.
     It determines that epic moment when you can move from shaking hands with someone to actually kissing them on both cheeks. It dictates when to address someone as "vous" and when it is permissible to switch to "tu" (the equivalent of "you" vs. "thee"). Madame Emilie Poste would have loved it.
     This etiquette (which, as you can see by its spelling, is a word of French origin) holds especially true at the dinner table.
     For instance, you never cut your lettuce. You fold it. That’s why French salads always come with whole leaves of lettuce, much to the chagrin of tourists who set about with knife and fork, cutting away, thus irretrievably labeling themselves as (shudder) Foreigners.
     Now it takes a certain amount of coordination to learn how to fold lettuce. I mean, you can’t use your fingers and then just pop it into your mouth. (Nor would you want to, with that drippy vinegar and oil dressing). The trick is to hold one end of the leaf down with your fork in your left hand and fold the other end over with your knife in your right hand. Then as you hold the slippery leaf in place with the knife, you spear the now-halved lettuce again with the fork, leaving enough room to fold the free end over again with the knife. You do this east to west and north to south until you’ve created a nice mouth-sized origami of lettuce, which you pray won’t flip open as you lift it from the plate to your mouth. The rule of thumb is, the crisper (and thus more resilient) the salad, the bigger your dry cleaning bill. My advice to beginners is: Avoid curly endive at all cost.
     The leading mealtime faux-pas is The Hand in the Lap. Before being unleashed on Society, we were all taught by our mothers that you’re supposed to eat with your left hand nestled politely in your lap. Not doing anything. Just nestling. In France, such manners will raise eyebrows and perhaps a sharp and amazed intake of breath. Both hands should remain visible at all times, wrists resting vertical on the edge of the table whenever eating utensils are not in use. No forearm. And definitely no elbows, but that’s the same in America. (I remember being told, "If you’re fit and if you’re stable; Keep your elbows off the table.") I don’t know where this hard and fast Hands-above-board Rule comes from. Perhaps the French, a people known for being amorous, wonder whether you’re holding hands with your table neighbor. Passing love notes. Or worse.
     But there is an Up side to eating à la française. Good news, American Eaters: you don’t have to switch your fork back and forth eternally between hands when cutting and eating. The left hand holds the fork throughout the entire meal, leaving the right hand free to wield the knife. Perhaps this is a throw-back to more dangerous times, such as the French Revolution, when there wasn’t enough bread to go around, or enough money to buy it, or both, and it was wise to remain armed and ready to defend your crusts at all times. After all, when informed that the French had taken to the streets because they didn’t have bread to eat, didn’t Marie-Antoinette comment "Let them eat cake", thereby demonstrating how far removed she was from the reality of her time? (She ultimately became ever more removed when her head was distanced from her shoulders by the guillotine for making just such statements. But that’s another story.)
     So now off to the dinner table with you and practice your lettuce folding. Next week we’ll move on to peeling oranges with knife and fork.