Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas à la française

Well, it’s the final week-end before Christmas, and people on both sides of the Atlantic are running around in little circles, trying to find last-minute gifts for their loved ones.  That much is the same in France and in the United States.
     But there are some differences.

Regarding children, the person French kids will be looking for on Christmas Eve is not so much Santa Claus - a deformation of the Dutch Sinterklaas - as it is the French version of England’s Father Christmas: quite literally, Le Père Noël. He comes on December 25th, whereas Sinterklaas comes on St. Nicholas’s holy day, December 5th. So Le Père Noël is more in line with "We Three Kings of Orient" - Les Rois Mages (Magi) - and the gifts they brought to Baby Jesus... although that would be Epiphany on January 6th. Are you still with me?
     Like American children, French children also pass the year in review, worrying if overall they’ve been naughty or nice, in hopes that Le Père Noël will visit and leave them toys. But in preparation, they don’t hang up stockings by the chimney, with or without care. They either have traditional wooden sabots (clogs) or more modern slippers, into which they stuff hay for Santa’s rennes (reindeer). Although that custom is tending to disappear in favor of the odd apple, given the shortage of hay in Paris and other French cities. But that would be the traditional picture: sabots.  And once the hay was eaten, Le Père Noël would put your toys in your sabot, which pretty much precludes large presents, doesn’t it?
     Santa comes down the chimney in France as he does in America. Most French homes do have a chimney, except for very new apartments. Both my old working-class apartment and now my artist’s studio in Montmartre were built around 1870 and they had chimneys; of course that was the only form of heating back then. In between the two, the apartment in the 19è arrondissement was built in the 1970s - when central heating had become the rule of thumb - and so had no chimney. Each apartment had a balcony though, and I presume children were told Le Père Noël came in that way.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the run up to Christmas centers on shops and stores which try to woo people through their doors to buy as much as their arms will carry. In the time-honored tradition of American stores, Parisian stores go to great lengths to make their windows eye-catching. Shops in each neighborhood band together to string lights up back and forth across the streets, and the counters of each shop are decked out in tiny lights and snowflakes and yards of fake white snow fabric.
     Most spectacular are the two side-by-side department stores on the Boulevard Haussmann - the famous Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps - which are a thing of wonder. The décors are planned a year in advance and prepared in workshops sworn to secrecy; then the windows are dressed by early December.
     As at least some of their window displays are aimed specifically at children, much animation is involved and a maximum number of toys available on the store’s shelves are put into action to entice parents to open their wallets. In fact, raised platforms are constructed along these window fronts so that Little Ones - les petits - can have greater visibility, their noses pressed right up against the windows. I remember taking my children to see them for many years, buying them a little paper cone filled with hot roasted chestnuts to keep their hands warm, bought from a street vendor with an ancient-looking charcoal contraption on wheels set up right there on the sidewalk. He knew a captive audience when he saw one!

The religion of the majority of French citizens remains Roman Catholicism, although most Catholics are lapsed, at best, and generally of the feminine persuasion. (It's said that a Catholic man will go to church four times in his life: for his baptism, his communion, his wedding and his funeral... but with many skipping a church wedding, even that number has dwindled.
     Yet Christmas is one of the days of the year when even non-church-goers sometimes grace the church with their presence. Unlike the U.S., where the Christmas service tends to be on the morning of the 25th, French Catholics hold their Christmas service on the eve... especially in the south of the country. There is much singing of traditional carols and sometimes re-enactments, complete with real shepherds (in the countryside, obviously) and real sheep.
     For a real thrill, go to Notre-Dame for its midnight mass. The cathedral is aglow with lots and lots of candles, the organ will set your chest beating and the choir is joyous. But wear warm socks; the stone floor is cold and the chill will migrate right up your legs until you’ll be shivering in style.

In France, the big Christmas meal is eaten after mass, and the table is fairly groaning with goodies. Which is a good thing because everyone is cold and ravenous by then.
     In preparation for the big meal, food shops are rife with the Holy Trinity: foie grashuîtres (oysters) and champagne, all ending in the traditional bûche de Noël (Yule log) for dessert.  Oranges are also a traditional fruit to offer, an expensive rarity in the old, pre-refrigerated shipping days, and even up through World War II. Now more exotic tangerines and mandarins also grace the stalls on the sidewalk in front of the green grocer’s, and they add a splash of color to the otherwise grey Paris winter light. (The capital of France lies at the same latitude as Labrador, in spite of its notably warmer weather - it rarely snows - and so daylight makes only a fleeting appearance from 8:30 to 4:30... provided cloud cover doesn’t whittle that down even further.)
     But it’s hard to dampen the spirits of a Frenchman bent upon celebrating, and every café-bar does good business at Christmastime. And now that cafés have outdoor heaters, you can sit on the terrace and people-watch even in the long nights of winter!

So next time you’re looking for something to do at Christmas, think outside the box and head to the City of Light, a name never more true than at Noël.

Merry Christmas, everyone! 
Joyeux Noël à tous!

My one and only attempt at a bûche de Noël,
complete with confectioner's sugar snow

Monday, December 17, 2012

Speaking in Tongues - No. 1

Being bilingual is interesting. And one of the most interesting sides of it, to me, is the sociological facette.
     Words evoke images. And those images change from one language to another. When you grow up with one language and then learn another, you get layers of images.  (If you grow up being bilingual, it may be different. I’ll have to ask my children. I had to learn French the hard way: at school.)
     But back to the layers of bilingualism.
     Every language expresses those images in its adages, its proverbs, its catch phrases that we all hear and incorporate painlessly growing up, but which foreigners have to learn in a more formal manner. All of them reveal something about a country’s national identity. For instance, a proverb about snow would have no meaning to someone in the Sahara. Sea references might not be evident in landlocked countries.
     Yet many translate fairly well. Some are even identical in two different languages - in my case English and then French. (I’ll have to look into Spanish, which I’m also reputed to speak.) Such as "the walls have ears" (les murs ont des oreilles). But not always. There are often tiny differences. Here are a few examples.

Let’s start with another proverb about overhearing things, this time referring to children. "Petits chaudrons, grandes oreilles" translates to "little cauldron, big ears". But the English equivalent is "little pitchers have big ears." Same idea, parallel structure. The only difference is that in French the subject isn’t pitchers but those big pots, often copper, that are used in cooking... and also in the Astérix comic books, where Panoramix the Druid uses one to mix his magic potion.
     And as long as we’re talking about cooking, how about "manger comme un ogre"? I suppose as France produced one of the world-famous authors of fairy tales (especially Sleeping Beauty), it’s only normal that a Big Eater would be an ogre instead of just a mere horse ("eat like a horse").
Ussé castle, with Sleeping Beauty's tower on the right
Author Charles Perrault stayed here in 1697
Keeping that ogre in food would cost an arm and a leg, except that in France that becomes the skin off your behind: "coûter la peau des fesses".
     And if the ogre washed it all down with some of the renowned French wine, he wouldn’t become "drunk as a skunk" but rather drunk as a pig: "saoûl comme un cochon". (Come to think of it, I’ve never smelled a skunk in France, so maybe that explains it. When the French hit the New World and got their first whiff, suddenly the pig just didn’t seem so bad.)
     While we’re on pigs, if you bought something sight unseen in France, you wouldn’t be buying one in a poke, but rather a cat in a "poche", which is a pocket but signifies something wrapped up and slipped in the pocket where it can’t be seen. (Wonder if that’s where that word "poke" came from?) In either case, don’t buy one: "il ne faut pas acheter chat en poche".
      But whatever you’re thinking about buying, plan wisely. Don’t go selling the bearskin before you kill the bear - vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué. The English version is far less dangerous: Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.
     If you want to go to Heaven and leave all your worries behind, you have to be "sage comme une image", whereas in English the idea of being "wise", meaning "good", becomes the banal "pretty as a picture". Maybe the "image" isn’t a religious picture in English.
     But while you’re still on Earth, not all things will come to you automatically, not food, nor drink, nor pretty pictures, Sometimes you just have to hope and wait. And sometimes even that doesn’t help. Your wishes will come true "when pigs can fly" in America. The French have a similar equivalent - it won’t happen until cows sprout wings ("quand les vaches arount des ailes") - and another less parallel one: when chickens grow teeth ("quand les poules auront des dents"). I’ll leave you to figure out which of the three is most likely to happen.
     And while we’re talking about hopes, let’s finish - at least for today - in Paris. After all, it’s the capital. "Avec des "si" on mettrait Paris en bouteille." That translates as "With an "if [only]" you could put Paris inside a bottle." But what it means is "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." The English proverb is a far cry from the French, but they mean the same thing, translate the same idea.
     So as you can see, the human mind works in similar ways on either side of the Atlantic. Or even the English Channel.

P.S. As it’s almost Christmas, let me add a few things.
- First of all, French children don’t hang stockings by the chimney, with or without care; they use sabots, wooden clogs that they fill with hay for Santa’s reindeer. And yes, that is a bit dated now. But so are stockings.
- There are the four Christmas ages of Man:
"Il y a quatre âges dans la vie de l'homme:  celui où il croit au Père Noël; celui où il ne croit plus au Père Noël; celui où il est le Père Noël; celui où il ressemble au Père Noël."
(The age when he believes in Santa, the age when he no longer believes in Santa, the age when he plays Santa and the age when he looks like Santa.)
- How about a quote from French author Pierre Jakez Hélias, who is a native of Brittany, the nose of France pointing out into the Atlantic, a land filled with legends dating back to times when the only warmth in a home came from the fireplace. A fresh fire was lit after Midnight mass and letting it go out was bad luck.
"Quand on laisse mourir le feu de Noël, il n'y a plus qu'un moyen de le rallumer. c'est d'aller chercher le feu des étoiles." 
(If you let the Christmas fire die,
the only way to light it again is to go seek the fire of the stars.)
- And one last Christmas reference, just for the fun of it. It always makes me laugh because it mocks all those two-line bits of folk wisdom you’ll find in the farmer’s almanach:
Froid en novembre, Noël en décembre.
If it’s cold in November, Christmas will come in December.
So Merry Christmas to you all. I hope Santa finds your clog.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Recipe of the Month: Coq au vin

Christmas is a festive time. And you don’t always have to eat turkey, especially if you just had it at Thanksgiving. There are other poultry dishes that are equally delicious. For instance, the humble chicken - and even the stewing kind that you have to cook a long time - can become a delicious feast.
     Once upon a time, I was enamored of a French aeronautics engineering student. And he was making "come away with me to the Casbah" noises. His particular Casbah was in the mountainous département of Corrèze in the center of France. He was homesick. And I knew how to "cook French". So he asked his mother for her recipe for coq au vin, cock in wine sauce (and please, no sniggering). Actually, the recipe came from a restaurant his family went to often. The chef gave it to her, but asked that I be sworn to secrecy, promising never to divulge the recipe.
     As that was almost half a century ago and the chef probably doesn’t have the restaurant any more (or may even have shuffled off her mortal coil), I feel free to print it here. But if you ever go to Corrèze, please don’t tell anyone where you got it.
     Most coq au vin recipes I’ve seen, including Julia Child’s, list fresh sautéed mushrooms, braised pearl onions and diced thick-cut browned bacon among the ingredients. You can do that if you like, cooking them separately from the chicken and adding them in at the end, when you’re ready to serve it up. But I’m giving the recipe as the restaurant owner passed it on to me.

(P.S. I did go away with him to the Casbah, or rather sail one month later on a different crossing of the oceanliner Le France, but he’d already reconverted his life to French ways and no longer had a yen for Things American. After a suitable mourning period, I got on with my life. I hope he got on with his. At least I got a great recipe out of it.)

  • one stewing chicken (or alternatively, a roaster), cut up into pieces
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 T peanut oil
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 3 T flour
  • 1 bottle (75 cl) of good red wine, preferably full-bodied
  • 75 cl of brown stock, preferably veal
  • salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 1 large sprig of fresh thyme (or 1/4 t dried)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 cloves
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • ½ c of port wine
  • 1/4 cup of blood (or cornstarch as needed to thicken)
  • 1 T crème fraîche (or sour cream) (optional)
  • 1 slice of foie gras (optional)

- In a Dutch oven or other heavy pot, melt the butter with the oil added in to keep the butter from turning dark. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces and then sauté them until they’re golden brown on all sides. Set them aside on a platter.
- In the same butter-and-oil, add the carrots and onions. Cook until the onions are golden, then add the flour, stir and cook for 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and the brown stock. Bring to a boil as you whisk. Add the nutmeg, as well as more salt and pepper, to taste.
- Put the chicken pieces back in the pot, along with the thyme, bay leaf, cloves and garlic. Add in the port. Simmer 40-60 min, or until the chicken is tender. Cooking time will vary with the age of the chicken.
- Remove the chicken and keep it warm in the serving bowl. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve, pressing the vegetables to extract all their juices. Put the sauce back on the burner and add the blood (or cornstarch), whisking energetically. (If you’re using cornstarch, first dilute 1 T in 2 T warm water to avoid lumps.) Bring the sauce back to a boil.
- Remove from the burner and whisk in the crème fraîche. Then add the foie gras cut into small pieces and whisk until totally dissolved.
- Pour the sauce over the chicken, decorate with parsley and serve immediately.
Serve with something (s)mashed/pureed: potatoes, chesnuts, celeryroot, carrots, any/all of the above. Accompany with a young, full-bodied burgundy, beaujolais or côtes du rhône.

N.B. I know there’s some discussion about foie gras, so if you’re violently opposed to it, you can leave it out. But it does add another rich layer of taste to this dish.
And obviously, unless you live out in the country near a pig or cattle farm, you won’t be getting fresh pig’s or calf’s blood. Even in Paris, that might be a problem. As blood doesn’t come packaged industrially, just leave it out. What it does is to thicken the sauce. So you can either reduce the sauce or add just a bit of cornstarch. It needs to end up thick enough to coat the back of a spoon lightly.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On the Road: Loire châteaux: Chambord

Chambord is the largest and most lavish of all the Renaissance châteaux, the forerunner of Versailles.
     It was once a 14th century hunting lodge, razed by the folly of grandeur of King François I. He took the medieval design of a fortress and turned it into a masterpiece of Italian-style architecture. Its construction obsessed him. When the treasury ran dry and he had to pillage the church's treasures and melt down the royal silverware, building work continued. And even when François' two sons were taken prisoner by the King of Spain and he couldn't pay the ransom, building work continued.
     Yet ultimately François spent only 27 nights there and died before the castle was completed. His plans called for diverting the Loire River to fill the moats, but he had to settle for rerouting the Cosson.
     Chambord has 440 rooms, the longest wall in France (31 km) and the largest walled-in park in Europe (5440 ha). Everything is the biggest, the brightest and the best. The most daring and innovative architecture of the time. Which is probably why the castle fascinated Louis XIV, the Sun King, over a century later when he arrived there on his honeymoon.

     Work began in 1519, when François was only 25 and arrogant with his first military victories. First came the central keep in the form of a Greek cross, where the courtiers lived. From it a staircase led upward to the terrace roof, culminating in the fleur-de-lys, the ultimate image of earthly power.   It was from the rooftop terrace that the bored ladies of the court - who hated the place - watched as their gentlemen rode off to hunt in the surrounding forest, and there that they would gossip and sun themselves to drive the castle's dampness out of their bones.  Still, François loved it.  Thirty-five years later, he added on two symmetrical wings: one for his own apartments, the other for the chapel. A separation of royal power and divine.
     But who was the architect? Some say Leonardo da Vinci, who was living downriver in Amboise at that time, although he died the same year construction began. Some sketches seem to bear his mark, and the general architecture is in his style. What is sure is that the staircase was built from a design by him: a unique double spiral staircase built around a hollow core, similar to a string of DNA. But as for the rest, no one will ever know how much is due to the Great Master.
     Chambord is a man's castle, intended primarily for hunters. Lots of forest and no gardens. Nothing to attract or distract the ladies.  When in residence, the court endured damp, piercing cold that resisted the castle's innumerable chimneys (one for every day of the year, it’s said).  Even in summer, it's cool inside.
     Perhaps the cold is why Chambord was inhabited only a total 20 years out of five centuries. But during those 20 years, it hosted many illustrious names. On his journey from Spain to Flanders in the 16th century, Emperor Charles V was François' guest, marveling at "what human endeavor can achieve". Gaston d'Orléans, the brother of Louis XIII, spent his exile here for plotting against his regal sibling, playing hide-and-seek up and down the staircase with his daughter. When Louis XIV refurbished a wing for his own apartments in the 17th century, Molière followed the court, staging several of his plays to Lulli's music. The exiled king of Poland, father-in-law to Louis XV, lived here eight years in the 18th century. And it was here that the Duke of Bordeaux, pretender to the throne, gave up his dream of riding triumphantly into Paris as Henri V, the last King of France.
     The French Revolution nearly destroyed Chambord, the symbol of the hated royalty. Its furniture was carted off and its floorboards ripped up. The government even planned to chisel away the main features of the decoration: the fleur-de-lys, the royal monogram "F", and the salamander. Luckily the undertaking would have been so expensive that the plans were abandoned. So was the castle.
     Why the salamander? At that period of France’s history, each king chose an animal to represent him. And according to medieval legend, the salamander has the amazing property of being able to extinguish fire without getting burned, just like the saints of the Bible. Thus François' emblem, and his motto, "I feed from the flames of good and extinguish the bad". And in case you missed the salamanders and royal monograms scattered by the hundreds throughout Chambord, François left his mark high above one of the rooftop windows in his wing of the castle: FRF: François, Roi de France (François, King of France).  As if he were reminding you that he built this.  Bow down, he commands.  Show respect.
     Yes, Chambord is a huge castle, as huge as the ego of the king who built it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

Any American who has lived in France for any length of time is familiar with this column that Art Buchwald penned in 1952 when he was writing for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.  But for those of  you who don't know it, here it is.  And happy Thanksgiving!

By Art Buchwald

(This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.)

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant .

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims ( Pelerins ) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World ( le Nouveau Monde ) where they could shoot Indians ( les Peaux-Rouges ) and eat turkey ( dinde ) to their hearts' content.

They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine ) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pelerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pelerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn ( mais ). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pelerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pelerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pelerins than Pelerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :

"Go to the damsel Priscilla ( allez tres vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

"I am a maker of war ( je suis un fabricant de la guerre ) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant ), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."

Although Jean was fit to be tied ( convenable à être emballe ), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow ( rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse ).

At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" ( Ou est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas aupres de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)

Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" ( Chacun a son gout. )

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.

No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

The view from my former apartment window,
enjoyed for 27 Thanksgivings

Every year of my ex-pat Paris life, I hosted a Thanksgiving dinner.  I invited my American friends, of course, but also guests from other nations:  fellow students from behind the Iron Curtain (a world totally foreign to me), Africans I'd met at UNESCO, islanders from the Caribbean from whence came my children's father... and even a smattering of British (I don't hold a grudge.)  We would take the door off its hinges, after removing the doorknob, and use it as a table to seat everyone - usually somewhere around 30 people. 
     The turkey - hard to find in November in France - was cooked downstairs in the friendly baker's oven because mine wasn't big enough.  Harry mixed up the egg nog, Melinda baked the corn muffins, someone pre-tossed a green salad, somebody else brought some cans of corn (which were pretty hard to find in the early years)... and I pretty much did all the rest:  cranberry sauce (another challenge to find cranberries), wild rice, candied yams, stuffing for the turkey and my grandmother's delicious clam chowder from scratch.  Many languages were spoken.  Many bottles of wine gave up their lives.  And a generally excellent time was had by all.  It makes for wonderful - albeit exhausting! - memories.
     So eat hearty, and Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

(For another description of Parisian Thanksgiving, go to the listing of past blogs in the right column and click on 2011 and then on November, and you'll find it.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Day Out: Chartres

The region around Paris is rich in culture and beauty. Among the cities within an hour's drive or a short train ride is Chartres, with its splendid cathedral towering over the wheat fields of La Beauce, the granary of France.

     Lying between Paris and the Loire castles, the city was of major historic importance; France's only Protestant king, Henri IV, was crowned here in 1594 after converting to Catholicism. Many legends also surround Chartres, stretching back to the days when it was a major Celtic city where Druid priests held ceremonies around a well which now lies under the cathedral's crypt. Later came a Gallo-Roman temple where a statue of a mother-goddess was venerated. Early Christians saw it as the Virgin Mary and moved it to their basilica, where "Our Lady Underground" guarded all subsequent churches until it disappeared in the French Revolution. In 1360 the Virgin protected Chartres from the siege of England's King Edward III with a hail storm, and again in 1587 from the Huguenot Prince du Condé who unexplainably retreated after his cannons made a breach in the city's ramparts and victory was within reach.
     The present-day Cathedral of Our Lady, Notre Dame, stands at the highest point in the city, on the site of five previous sanctuaries destroyed by fire. It dates from the mid-13th century, the height of Gothic architecture, and is unique in its unity, perhaps because it took only 25 years to build. The sculptor Rodin called it the "Acropolis of France"; UNESCO lists it as a World Heritage treasure. Also unique are the cathedral's asymmetric spires: a shorter, simpler romanesque masterpiece on the right; a taller, flamboyantly rich Gothic spire on the left. The sculptures that grace both this Royal facade and the south facade are wonders of romanesque art, and while they depict Christ's life and the Last Judgment, the many Biblical kings and queens portrayed are probably modeled on the princes, barons and rich bourgeois merchants whose generosity built this monument to Christian faith.

     Light flows in through three magnificent rose windows facing north, south and west, and many more 12th and 13th century stained glass windows of unrivaled beauty, their distinctive blue named after the city. To be visible from afar, the figures of the upper windows are large, while the lower windows (one offered by the American Association of Architects in 1954) have more intimate medallions of the trades that created them. Some, like the window of St. Jacques behind the main altar, have been restored recently by months of painstaking labor.
     There is one place in the cathedral where Christianity meets paganism: the labyrinth. The center of its black and white geometric design marks one of the world's strongest points of telluric current, a force worshipped by the Druids, and at the summer solstice pilgrims from around the world follow its 294 meter long maze on their knees as they pray.
     But although the cathedral is the gem of the city, there are other points of interest, such as the Musée des Beaux-Arts in the 17th century bishop's palace. This museum, which also schedules concerts, boasts a wide range of artwork: tapestry, medieval polychrome wood sculptures, a Vlaminck collection, a Celtic mask from the first century and a Tahitian tiki.
     Tucked away north of the cathedral in a former stables is the International Center of Stained Glass, where fascinating displays explain how stained glass is made and colorful temporary exhibits spotlight works by selected artists from different countries.
     Many narrow streets wind up and down the hill where the cathedral stands. A short walk will take you to the market (Chartres has been a market town for centuries) where you can buy food for a quiet picnic on the ramparts behind the cathedral with a view over the three branches of the Eure River below. Or try La Truie Qui File (The Spinning Sow) restaurant in a 15th century half-timbered house, where the menu features fine local cuisine.
     On your way home, don't miss la Maison de Picassiette, a house built by a dreamer, where everything is decorated with colored shards of glass, mirror and crockery: garden, walls, furniture, even an old Singer sewing machine. Over 30 years of work to build a strange but striking creation unlike any other.

Note: I wrote this article in 1995. Since then, La Truie Qui File restaurant has closed, much to my chagrin. But the 16th c. building has been restored and the city of Chartres has transformed it into the Tourist Office. So the delicious meals are gone, but the upside-down sow is still spinning and the salmon that once hung over the fishmonger’s is still there.

Chartres is 77 km (48 miles) from Paris and there are many trains daily.  The trip takes about an hour and then it's just a 15 minute walk to the Cathedral, albeit uphill.
     It's an easy stroll around the center of town, with lots to see and window displays that will call out to your wallet.
     If you want to stay overnight, there are several hotels to choose from.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Recipe of the month: Flammekueche


First of all, before anything else, you will want to know how the heck this is pronounced. Well, that’s easy. It’s pronounced "flahm-koosh". Although I’ve heard it many other ways as well, so don’t let pronunciation keep you from making it. And when people ask what it is, you can tell them, just like that: flahm-koosh.
     This recipe comes from Alsace in the east of France (even though it’s also on the menu of restaurants in the north near the Belgian border). It means flaming tart, or more specifically a "pie baked in the flames." It was traditionally made to test the heat of the baker’s oven before he started baking the bread. Flammekueche is one of the most well-known specialties of Alsace. And of Germany as well, right there on the opposite bank of the Rhine.
     Alsace sits on France’s border with Germany (and Switzerland) and stretches north/south along the Rhine River. Over history, it has been part of both countries, and before that part of the Holy Roman Empire. In my early years in Paris, the wife of the baker near my apartment was from Alsace. She told me about being born in Germany and then becoming French, all without leaving her native town. That’s because Alsace, which had been part of France since the 17th century, was conquered by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War and given back to France only at the end of World War I. So Mme. Prandy had been forbidden to speak French when she was a child, then forbidden to speak German as a young woman... but she could always speak Alsatian, which is actually more a form of German than anything else.
     In addition to the language, the cuisine of the region is also very heavily accented in German. That means a lot of pork. And the traditional flammekueche involves thick-cut bacon and onions and cheese on a thin crust. So it’s very much an Alsatian pizza. As a matter of fact, it was basically a home-cooked dish until the pizza craze swept France in the Sixties. Mushrooms can be substituted for the bacon, if you want a vegetarian version, and Munster cheese for the usual fromage blanc. But unlike a pizza, it’s usually rectangular in shape.
     The dough is just a pizza dough. To make this easy dish even easier if you’re running late or just don’t feel like being Julia Child-ish, you can use a ready-made pizza dough. Be sure to roll it out very thin. It’s perfect for a dinner among friends on a cold day.

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, cut into thin rounds
  • ½ c crème fraîche, commercial or homemade (see note)
  • ½ c fromage blanc (ricotta or low-fat cream cheese)
  • 4 pinches nutmeg
  • ½ tsp salt
  • freshly-ground pepper, to taste
  • 6 oz thick-cut slab bacon, chopped or cut into matchsticks

- Preheat the oven to 450°F (230 °C)
- Heat 1 T of the oil in a skillet. Add the onion and cook over low heat, stirring, until golden brown (about 5 min). Let cool a bit.
- Combine the crème fraîche, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooled onion.
- Heat the remaining oil in the skillet and fry the bacon until lightly browned, stirring constantly. Remove and drain on paper towels.
- Oil a 14 x 16 inch baking sheet. Roll the dough until it’s slightly smaller than the baking sheet. Place it on the sheet and spread the onion mixture over the dough, leaving a very small raised rim all the way around, then dot with the bacon.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the tart is lightly browned. Serve immediately.

Accompany with a crisp green salad and serve with beer or a fruity white wine.

NOTE: If you can’t find crème fraîche, you can make your own by combining 1 cup heavy cream with 2 tablespoons buttermilk, stir, cover with plastic wrap, and leave at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours, or until it has become very thick. Refrigerate and it will become even thicker. It can be used for lots of other recipes, such as pepper steaks (steaks au poivre) or veal scallops with mushrooms (veau à la normande).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fête des Vendanges in Montmartre

Just as there are bee hives on the roof of the Paris Opera House and a lake with trout underneath it, there is also a vineyard in Montmartre and a cave à vin beneath its City Hall.
     Arbois, with its Fête du Biou (see blog, Sept. 6, 2011), isn’t the only place in France boasting a grape harvest festival. In fact, Parisians need travel no farther than Montmartre, which is an easy ride on the Métro. Right here in my own backyard, the first (or second) week-end in October has been celebrated with a Fête des Vendanges as long as I’ve lived in Montmartre. In fact, I just looked it up and it dates back to 1934 - although I’m not sure this kind of thing was allowed under the Third Reich years. 1934! That means this year is (pause while I pull out my calculator) ... the 79th year. 79 and still going strong.
     Lately, each year has had a theme.  For 2012 (Oct 10-14), it's "Festival of Delicious Delicacies", which is very general.  Sometimes it's more specific, like in 2011 when it was "Montmartre and the Islands". Meaning their islands, the French West Indies. Which is why that year’s godparents were Jocelyn Béroard - from Martinique and lead singer in the zouk group Kassav - and Laurent Voulzy, composer and singer born right here in the neighborhood but of parents from Guadeloupe.
In all the years I knew the Fête well - given that it passed below my windows and made a halt in the gardens of the Sacré-Coeur, which was my view - it was a parade that gathered together viticultural "brotherhoods" (more recently including some sisters) alternating with what we here in America would call marching bands but could more aptly be labeled strolling bands or ambling bands. Never saw a one of them march, and there was even an American high school band one year. However, the now-popular concept of baton twirling by nubile girls in short skirts and boots with tassels has been adopted, one of the less violent social trends to have crossed the Atlantic successfully.
     Another critical factor in the Fête des Vendanges is food, of all sorts and from every region of France. After all, wine is viewed by the French as being an accompaniment of food, and much tra-la-la is made of what wine goes with what food... or vice versa. (Do you see the Delicious Delicacies theme popping up here?) There are the requisite sausages, many of which are hard enough to become the blunt instrument that Colonel Mustard used in the conservatory in Clue. There are cheeses of any sort or shape the human mind can imagine... and a few that it cannot. There are spices and herbs, pastries and breads, nuts and dried fruit, including the fabled pruneaux d’Agen, prunes from Agen... sorry, I mean "dried plums". There are booths selling utensils used in the making of foods, and lovely pottery dishes in which to serve said foods. And even how-to cookbooks for the up-and-coming generation which is sadly turning more and more to frozen foods (albeit from the excellent Picard brand) and to take-aways.
     The increasing popularity of this Fête has brought about some fun events. For instance, on Sunday - just as some people are going to church - other people will be celebrating a Non-Demand in Marriage. If that sounds strange, it’s because you’re not familiar with a song by Georges Brassens, who was very big in the musical world that (still) is Montmartre: "J’ai l’honneur de ne pas te demander ta main, ne gravons pas nos noms au bas d’un parchemin", or poorly translated: "I have the honor of not asking for your hand, and we won’t sign our names at the bottom of a document". Yes, I know it doesn’t rhyme, but I have limited time to write this. This event takes place on the Place des Abbesses, directly across from St. Jean Church, where more serious Catholics are attending mass at that very moment. The Mayor of the 18th arrondissement, which includes Montmartre, unsolemnly pronounces you fiancés forever and a photo is taken to commemorate the event. This foolishness has been going on since 2007.
     There are lots of events for children, and some for the not-so-children. There are tours of the vineyard, which by then has been picked dry and its grapes sent to the City Hall of the arrondissement to be pressed, bottled and left to age in the cave set up in its basement. Usually the yield is some 1,500 -2,000 bottles of what is lovingly called Clos Montmartre. Money from the sale of this wine goes into the coffers of the district’s social works, including the Petits Poulbots otherwise known as the titis parisiens, street urchins made famous in the sketches of Francisque Poulbot, who used the ill-gotten gains of these hideous drawings to set up a dispensary for the orphans of Montmartre. (So I guess something good did come of them after all.) He also helped save the gardens of poet Aristide Bruant and transform them into a vineyard... which brings us neatly back to the crux of the subject.
     In the 16th century, with Montmartre still far outside the city limits of Paris, vineyards spilled down from the top of the Butte to the plains below. By the 17th century, the local white wine had acquired a poor reputation summarized in the saying: "Drink a pint and you’ll pee a quart", thus putting the accent on its diuretic qualities rather than its taste. And that may explain why the vineyards were eventually ripped up. It wasn’t until 1933 that the municipality had 2,000 new vines planted on this little north-facing plot.
     But even more than the wine, I enjoy the music that goes along with the festivities. And there’s plenty of it. Not as much as at the Fête de la Musique (see blog, June 18, 2011) but more and more every year. And as last year was placed under the sign of the West Indies, there was lots of dancing in the streets. Along with hip-hop creole, a concept that fascinates and perplexes me. French film director Claude Lelouch, of A Man and a Woman fame, hosted a performance of The Jungle Book at his Ciné 13 moviehouse-cum-theater. And all the other "pocket theaters" of the neighborhood programmed something musical as well.
     Although I missed Montmartre's Fête des Vendanges this year in order to enjoy the Indian summer of Ann Arbor, I’m sure a good time was had by one and all.

For a video on the grape harvest, click on

Monday, October 8, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits: L'Impressionisme et la Mode

Museums in Paris usually schedule three or four shows a year, and there are several dozen museums in all. So there's always too much to see. But September is a light-exhibit time because there's a museum show hiatus around the end of the summer.
     The Impressionisme et la Mode exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay opened on September 25th, to coincide with Paris Fashion Week (Sept 25-Oct 3). As if Orsay needed a hook to drag people in! The place is always packed, which is why it’s wise to go as early in the morning as possible. Let the doors open and that first line dwindle, then make your appearance.

Impressionism is light, and how it plays on surfaces, and how it's perceived by the eye. That’s how the Impressionists explained what it was they were trying to do: make light visible.
     One subject artists have always painted to show the viewer light is fabrics. The sheen of satin and silk, the depth of velvet, the warm glow of pearls... Which is probably one reason why the Impressionists chose to paint so many women and the yards and yards of fabric that ladies of their era wore. You see it in all their canvases: Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Cassatt, Monet, Manet, Caillebotte and many others.
     This show is every bit as much about the fashion side as about the Impressionism side of the equation. That becomes obvious as of the first room, where long cases are filled with turn-of-the-century dresses. Other cases are spread with fashion magazines from that period. If you’ve come for the artworks, you could just walk right through, but it would be a pity not to admire the handiwork - the detail - that went into the making of these dresses.
     After that introduction, there’s a long room typical of the theatrics that go into a Paris museum exhibit. Everything has been staged to invite you to a fashion show. Dim lighting, huge mirrors, rows and rows of numbered chairs. You’d think you were chez Dior or Givenchy or Yves Saint Laurent. Maybe not Gaulthier; he’s too wild. Several more dresses are spotlighted here.
     Beyond the fashion show décor, there are other rooms, other dresses, other Impressionist masterpieces. A few displays have matched a painting with a period dress very similar to the one worn by the artist’s model. In fact, sometimes you have to look very closely to find the differences. Those are perhaps the most interesting.
     There’s even one room with men’s fashion, in case that should interest the few gentlemen who deigned to accompany their ladies to this feminine exhibit.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Musée d’Orsay with friends, and we weren’t allowed in the old ballroom dating from the time when this was a working railroad station complete with a hotel and a restaurant and facilities for special events. It turns out the ballroom was being set up as part of this exhibit, instead of just sitting bare in its lost splendor. The larger artworks have been put here, and display cases with dresses that revolve on turntables, like very slow waltzing ladies. As all the previous rooms were small and cramped with people and displays, it's a breath of fresh air to reach this vast ballroom, with its towering, ornate ceiling.
     A fitting finish to a show that reflects the past splendor of the Belle Epoque, when women glided elegantly into history. Before a whole new world of wars swallowed them up forever.

et la mode
Until Jan. 20, 2013
Musée d'Orsay
Métro Solférino
Open Tues-Sun 9:30 - 6
and until 9:45 pm
Tuesdays & holidays
Tickets:  € 12 & 9.50