Sunday, July 29, 2012

Food gardens on both sides of The Pond

I just got back from a week visiting friends in The Thumb (look up Michigan on a map and you’ll figure it out all by yourselves... and feel really smart). A tour of my vegetable garden revealed what I’ve never been able to grow before: zucchini.
     Yes, I know zucchini supposedly grows all by itself. I’ve heard the Garrison Keillor routine. But I never managed to grow any. I’d get flowers, but either no zucchini would grow, or the critters would get to it first. I guess my karma must have changed.
     So I cooked myself up a vegetable dinner of zucchini and bell pepper from the garden and flavored with herbs from my herb garden: rosemary, marjoram, coriander, chives. It was delicious! And tasted even better because no shopping bags were harmed in the making of the meal.

But where's the Paris connection, you ask?
      Well, I grow things in Paris as well, having been fortunate enough to find a small apartment - once an artist’s studio - with an equally small garden at the back of a courtyard in Montmartre. Much of it is a shade garden, given the three-story tall cherry laurel tree just within the gate to my kingdom. (Queendom?) But parts of my realm still manage to get sun, at least in summer, and I’ve put those parts to culinary use.
Tomatoes on the far left, peppers out of view
     For two summers, I bought green pepper and cherry tomato plants. I bought them already with some blossoms because I was only there for a month at a time. The peppers I got to eat... usually the night before I flew back to the States, and even though they were still pretty tiny. The tomatoes, however, were another matter. Because there was a merle chanteur in residence in the tree, the bird the Beatles immortalized in "Blackbird".
     Now I love that bird. It kept me company all those sleepless nights when I grieved the death of someone very precious to me. The merle is the first bird to sing in the morning, even before the sun comes up, and it sings later than all the others, long after the sun has set. Its song is never the same; I'm sure it makes it up as it goes along. And if there are several in the neighborhood, they have conversations. I imagine them asking "what are you gonna do today?" ... "I think I’m gonna fly over to that park with the pond. You know the one?" ... "Oh yeah, they have good things there."
     But one of their conversations was obviously about my cherry tomatoes being there for the picking. I’d nurse them along, watering, weeding, waiting until they were really red. Then one day telling myself it would be perfect in the evening. But when I looked out, it would be missing. I might even find some seeds. Or that green topknot that attaches the fruit to the vine. But the tomato was long gone. And then one day, I caught him in the act, fluttering down, grabbing it in his beak and jerking it off the stem, then flying back to the safety of a branch out of my reach to enjoy it greedily.
     I don’t grow cherries any more. Not in Paris.
The key part of my French "garden" grows in colorful pots on my doorstep. It’s my kitchen herb garden.
      In the winter, some of it comes inside - especially the basil - and the rest just toughs it out in the mild Parisian winter. (Except last year’s, a particularly Michiganesque, below-freezing winter that killed all but the mint and the bay leaf.) I water the herbs tenderly while I’m in residence. When I’m gone, they’re watered by the Heavens and a few kind neighbors. Whatever doesn’t make it on its own is replaced the next spring. It’s such a pleasure to step out of my door and just snip off what I need. And I need quite a variety: basil, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, parsley, tarragon, chives, mint, verbena...
     Fresh herbs are the very essence of French cuisine. And they follow me in my travels. Or rather they wait for me patiently, with fragrant, open arms.

To hear a merle chanteur:

To hear the Beatles "Blackbird" with my merle chanteur:

The Blackbird - YouTubeBeatles -
/url?url= 4:36? 4:36

Taken off of the Beatles 1968 self-titled album "The Beatles [White Album]" One of the best songs on the album

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ramblings: Familiar but Different

Have you ever noticed how little everyday things can change from one country to another?

Take, for instance, the lowly toaster. Why is a toaster in France a different shape than a toaster in the States?
     Well, what does a toaster do? It toasts things. Muffins, sure, but mostly bread. In America, there’s an expression: "the best thing since sliced bread". And a slice of bread in the U.S. has a certain form... and a certain thickness. So the generic American toaster is designed to accommodate such a slice of bread. Whereas in France they eat baguettes, those long, slender, thick, crusty things you see under many a Frenchman’s arm around mealtime. (Yes, yes, I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a true cliché and still is true today. Just ask anyone who’s traveled outside of Paris.) So the French toaster slit has to be deeper and wider than that of its American cousin. Otherwise part of your baguette will be sticking out of the top and not getting toasty, not to mention that it’ll get stuck inside when it should be popping out. Ergo, the French toaster is a different shape than the American toaster. CQFD - QED and etc.

Another "everyday" thing that is different is the washcloth.
     In America, a washcloth is a more-or-less square piece of terrycloth. In France it will still be made of terrycloth and it might be square, but it’s sewn up on three sides to create a gant de toilette, a wash glove. At first I thought that was strange, but I soon found it was very handy (pun intended) to slip it over your hand to wash with. More logical. And if nothing else, the French are definitely logical. Cartésien. Cartesian logic, of course, René Descartes being French after all.

Then there’s the business of traffic lanes. Especially those slow lanes on roads going uphill, the ones intended for slow-moving vehicles, trucks in particular.
     On American highways, it’s usually the left lane that runs out. The fast lane. The passing lane. Those zippy cars have to slow down to merge in with the less rapid vehicles. The French do it the other way around on their expressways. It’s the right lane, the slow lane, that has to merge. The French logic is that the fast cars are zinging along and would be required to brake, whereas the slow cars lumbering along can just slip into traffic as they pick up speed downhill. Traveling slower, they will have an easier time of braking, if need be.
     I found the rationale for this very confusing until I figured out the total thought process behind it and then it became obviously The More Logical Way. Maybe that means I’m getting too French.

All this to say that if you’re traveling outside of your native country, take a look around and see what’s recognizable but slightly different. And then try to figure out why. You can report back.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits

The much over-looked Berthe Morisot

In Paris, there’s a partially undeclared war between the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée Marmottan. And it’s all Monet’s fault.
     Orsay has all the spotlights on it, and it’s right there in the middle of town, across the river from the Louvre. The much smaller Marmottan, on the other hand, is barely inside Paris, on its very western edge, and not right at a métro stop even. So to make the point that they have Monets too, they’ve changed their name to Musée Marmottan Monet.
     Their permanent exhibit, built around the personal collection of Paul Marmotan as well as gifts from different donors, includes illuminations from the Middle Ages and Renaissance as well as works from the First Empire. But the main attraction is its works by Claude Monet, and with the huge donation made by the artist’s younger brother Michel in 1966, this became the largest Monet collection in the world.
And all this showcased in a magnificent mansion that was once a duke’s hunting lodge.

But as amazing as all that is, that wasn’t why I took three different métro lines to come here. The Marmottan is hosting a show of the works of Berthe Morisot, and thanks to her descendants’ generosity, this museum is now the proud owner of 81 of her pieces: oils, watercolors, pastels, drawings and even her sketchbooks. It’s the first retrospective show of her genius since well before my birth.

Morisot, by Edma
     Morisot was one of three children, all of whom were given art lessons at a young age, maybe because they were descended from the Rococo painter Fragonard. Her brother moved on to other interests but Berthe and her sister Edma continued and became quite talented artists. Edma eventually got married, as women tend to do, had children and closeted her natural gift away in mothballs. Berthe did not. Even after her marriage to Impressionist Edouard Manet’s brother Eugene at the old-maidenly age of 33, she continued to paint, her favorite model being their daughter Julie. And she kept her own name as well, signing - as before - Berthe Morisot.
     But long before her marriage, Morisot had already been in the thick of things Impressionist. By the age of 20, she was being taught by Camille Corot, especially in plein air (outdoor) painting. That gave her a good preparation in the transposition of light, which was the principle behind Impressionism. Her paintings were first accepted by the Salon de Paris when she was only 23 and from then on her name was on the lips of all her contemporaries. She was the only woman artist at the first Impressionist show in 1874, her works hanging alongside those of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and Sisley. Pretty good company, for a girl!
Morisot, by Manet
     Manet took a keen interest in her talents and a long and friendly collaboration ensued, all of which is well-documented. Some say he was the teacher and she the student, but there seems to be quite a lot of give and take when you read their correspondence. He painted a striking portrait of her in mourning when her father died... and more than ten others as well.
     She was a woman living astride two worlds: the bourgeoisie into which she was born and the artist’s world in which she thrived. In her time, women led lives like Edma’s. If they dabbled in art, it was just that: dabbling. The only other woman I can think of who achieved as much was the American, Mary Cassatt.
     Berthe Morisot died of pneumonia which she caught from her daughter while nursing her back to health. She was only 54.

Femme à l'éventail

Jeune fille arrossant un arbuste

The exhibit starts with the traditional exercise for the budding artist: copies of works by the masters. It includes a few works by Edma, including her portrait of Berthe. It moves on to what she is most known for: paintings of her family, including her headstrong maid Pasie. There are a few nudes, one the same as another of a shepherdess, but this one sans clothes, and then again what may be the same shepherdess wearing only a head scarf and sitting on a riverbank, which almost uses Renoir flesh colors.
Thatched cottage
     The final landscapes take much from Monet, with whom she corresponded. They show she was moving on to a decomposition of color and light that is almost post-Impressionist and even abstract. Who knows what she would have painted if she had lived?
     The exhibit included just one piece of sculpture: a bust of Julie - who else? - for which she is said to have gotten tips from Rodin himself, and there is indeed a Rodin cum Camille Claudel air about it.
Jeune fille à la poupée
My favorite of the entire exhibit was an oil of a young girl - maybe Julie - clutching her doll. It came from a private collection, as did many others, and it made the child look very vulnerable, her dark eyes staring into the void.

Le berceau
    But for me, there was one missing - Le berceau (The Cradle). In card form, I sent it out to announce the birth of one of my children many years ago. I was told it’s hanging in the Musée d’Orsay. And as they have an exhibit of Degas nudes there right now, I think a visit is in order, don’t you?

I must admit that none of the photos of Morisot’s works are mine. That was not allowed, even though I did steal the one against the garden background. So I’ve borrowed the others off the Web.

La lecture

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)extended through Sunday, July 29, 2012
Musée Marmottan Monet
2, rue Louis Boilly
Paris 16è
Métro: La Muette

Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 6
Thursdays open until 8 pm

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits: Eugene Atget, Paris

In all the years I lived full-time in Paris, I saw many an old photo and/or postcard of the City of Light. But I didn’t know the name Atget. More recently there was a mini-show at the Musée d’Orsay about him. And then my daughter - thoughtfully nourishing a) my love of Paris and b) my budding interest in photography - gave me a book of his photographic work.
     So when I saw there was a show of his photography at the Museum of Parisian History, I just had to go.
     (No one actually calls it the Museum of Parisian History. Most people just know it as Carnavalet, the name of its illustrious owner, Mme. Carnavalet, who bought it after it was built in 1548. Around 1655 it was renovated by none other than François Mansart, the most accomplished of all 17th c French architects. Noted French writer Mme. de Sévigné lived there as of 1677, which is why the street bears her name. The City of Paris bought the mansion in 1866 and opened it to the public in 1880. It became so crowded with memorabilia - Paris has a lot of history! - that the adjoining Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau mansion (1686) was annexed and connected up in 1989. Now the museum has about one hundred rooms where you can trace the history of France’s capital, starting with a prehistoric canoe from 4600 B.C. right up to present day artifacts.)

But on to the exhibit. The reason Carnavalet hosted it is that Atget sold 9,000 of his photos to them over the years. The museum was one of his biggest client. About 180 of those photos are included in this show.
     Eugène Atget was born in southwest France in 1857. At age 5, both parents died, leaving him an orphan. As a young man, he moved to Paris and tried to make a career of acting, with little success. At 31, he studied photography, which was to be his gagne-pain (his bread and butter) for the rest of his life.
     Fascinated by the Paris that was fast disappearing, demolished by the grandiose decrees of Napoleon II and the pick-axes of Baron Haussmann’s workers, Atget roamed the streets with his camera, photographing shops, mansions and hovels alike, store signs, street peddlers whose professions were also disappearing... all the things that were hold-overs from the Ancien Régime. And he kept it up from 1897 to his death in 1927, except for a hiatus during the folly of World War I.
     The last photo in the exhibition is a portrait of Eug ne Atget at age 70. It was taken by an American photographer and admirer, Berenice Abbott. When she went back to his house to give it to him a few days later, his doors were closed. Atget had died.

I think the parts I enjoyed most were those of the actual people and of the shop signs.  Paris had many, many "emblem" signs because many of the French still couldn't read and could only write their name, if that.  Jules Ferry passed his laws making education gratuite, laïque et obligatoire - free, secular and mandatory - in 1881-82 only. So the café called Le Tambour had a drum over the door, and so forth.
     And the people! It’s hard to imagine that less than a century before I reached Paris, people lived in such abject squalor. The series of photos of the ragpickers who lived on the fortifs at the edges of Paris - the fortified earthworks mounded up to protect Paris as of the 1840's - reminded me of photos taken of the ragpickers of Egypt that Sister Emmanuelle broadcast to the world. And this in France, one of the world’s leading colonial powers of the day!
     Although he concentrated his efforts on the heart of Paris, there were also a few photos of Montmartre... minus the tourists, of course.
     The show ends with the collection of photos that Surrealist Man Ray bought from Atget. They were on loan from the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York (Eastman, of Kodak fame) - the first time they’ve seen French soil since they emigrated to America. There were also a handful of photos by an emulator of Atget, Emmanuel Pottier.
     Without Atget’s tireless and systematic coverage of the heart of Old Paris, we would have no idea what it was like, no feeling for what Parisians’ lives were like. Hugo wrote of it, but that leaves a lot to the imagination. This show is an excellent example of "One picture is worth a thousand words."
     And if that is true - which it certainly appears to be - then Atget left a fortune to Paris.

Eugène Atget, Paris
through July 29, 2012

Musée Carnavalet
23 rue de Sévigné
Paris 4è

Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 6
Closed Mondays

Tickets 7€, 5€ and 3.50€

Monday, July 9, 2012

Recipe of the month: Céleri rémoulade

Before I went to France, I thought there was only one type of celery: the long, stringy, light green kind with small leaves at the ends of its branches. So the first time I ate céleri rémoulade, I wondered why it didn’t taste familiar. But I liked what I tasted, which is strange because I don’t really like mayonnaise and the rémoulade sauce is very much like mayonnaise.
     A long time afterward, I found out why it didn’t taste like celery. Because it wasn’t! It was celeriac, which is a whole other animal... or at least a whole other variety of celery. Its other names in English are knob celery and more often celery root, although that’s misleading even though it is a root vegetable and it is in the celery family.
     Celeriac looks kind of like a nubbly turnip with a bad complexion and a green topknot. Not the most attractive vegetable in the market. A strange, almost prehistoric looking thing in fact. But in spite of that, céleri rémoulade is one of the classics of delis, bistros and school lunchrooms alike. A sort of grated carrots but white, and with a different sauce.
     It can be rather crunchy, almost tough, so some people like to blanch it in boiling water for a minute beforehand. If you julienne it up thin enough, that probably isn’t necessary. Try both ways to find out which you prefer.
     On the Mediterranean coast, they often add a few drops of anchovy oil, which you can recycle when you open a can or jar of anchovies.
     This is a starter that’s better when made a bit ahead. Thanks to the lemon juice, it shouldn’t discolor or turn. And it’s a good change from cole slaw for the picnic days of July.

  • celeriac (1 lb = 3-3½ c cut)
  • ½ c lemon juice + 1 T
  • ½ c olive oil
  • 3 T Dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh or dried green herbs
- Peel the celeriac, removing any eyes, then cut into thin julienne strips. You can use the large holes of your grater to go faster, or the adequate fixture on your food processor to go even faster. Put the celeriac into a bowl and sprinkle with ½ t of salt and ½ c lemon juice. Toss well and let sit for 15 minutes. Rinse, drain and pat dry.
- While the celeriac is resting, make the rémoulade sauce by blending together the mustard, ½ t of salt and a good pinch of freshly ground pepper (white will look better, but black is also fine). Very gradually beat in the oil as for a mayonnaise until it is creamy. Lastly blend in 1 T of lemon juice. This can go fast with a food processor or mixer, otherwise use a metal whisk and good biceps.
- Mix the celeriac and the sauce together well and put into the refrigerator (min 15 minutes but you can cover it and leave it to macerate overnight as well).
- Just before serving, sprinkle with chopped green herbs: 1 T fresh chervil, parsley, and/or tarragon (or 1/4 t if dried herbs).