Thursday, April 25, 2013

French Kissing

One of the first things foreigners notice upon arrival in France is The French Kiss.
     No, not that French kiss.  La bise.  The kiss on the cheek that French people exchange each time they meet or part.  La bise is an Art.  Or a Science, depending on how you look at it.
     The first hurdle to clear is determining at what point in a relationship you should shift to la bise from the handshake (always a neat "one-up-one-down", never the American pumping motion).  If you close in for the kill too soon, you'll be categorized as "fresh" (for men), "loose" (for women)... or the all-time faux-pas in France "too familiar" (gasp!).  If, on the other hand, you withhold your cheeks longer than is appropriate, you will be viewed as "cold", or even worse "haughty".
     Men often stick to the handshake with other men, or a manly hug, except if the other man is a relation, a childhood friend or a "significant other".  Women tend to be less reserved, switching over more readily and proffering a greater number of pecks on the cheek.  The older of the two parties is always the one to initiate the switchover.  And if one party is a man and the other a woman, there is the usual social confusion about who decides when.  (Does the woman offer her cheek or does the man just dive in?)
     One fairly hard and fast rule:  always start to the left.  This will avoid the confusion which inevitably occurs when both parties head in the same direction, ultimately bumping noses.  Secondly, if eyeglasses are worn by either party, or both, they should be removed (as one removes one's gloves in polite circles when shaking hands).  This eliminates the clinking of glasses, which, though a cheerful sound, is far more appropriate with fine crystal and champagne toasts.
     So now we have determined when to start and in which direction.  This leaves the question of number.  How many is enough?  One, as in the British or Yankee peck on the cheek, is out of the question.  That would hardly be worth shifting from the handshake. The options are two, three or four.  No more.  Mais non!  Candidates for a two-sy are the newly-kissables or long-standing acquaintances.  When the friendship shifts gears, you up the ante to three, a nice round number.  That "one more" shows the kissee that he/she has become special and merits more affection.  Four, however, seems to be the standard in Brittany and the French West Indies, as well as among "close" friends, ranking immediately prior to the abandoning of cheeks for lips (see photo above).

Now that you know the rules, such as they are, you can practice, provided you find a willing partner.
     At this point you will discover one of Einstein's laws of physics:  Two cheeks lying on a parallel plane will not meet.  Therefore, it is physically impossible for you to plant one on your partner's cheek at the same time as he/she is planting one on yours.  The French kiss solution:  lean forward, align cheeks (almost brushing), and make a recognizable yet discreet smooching sound.  But never, NEVER, under any circumstance, actually kiss the cheek in question.  This would be every bit as gauche as making contact with and actually kissing a hand in a baise-main, if anyone actually kissed hands any more.  (Some do; they usually are quite elderly and sport carefully trimmed moustaches.)
     So now you have your instructions.  Please pair off and start practicing.
     We'll be having a quiz at the end of the hour.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Terrorism in the Global Village

This is the first time I've posted something "topical" in this blog.  Blame it on the flashback I'm having.  I've narrowly missed three such terrorist explosions, this one on July 25th, 1995.  My way of pushing it off to a corner of my mind was to write this back then, the first in my Postcards of Paris articles.  And get on with my life.  Barring which, the terrorists win.
So now that you know what it is, you can close this page or go on to read it.

The day started bright and clear, and slipped gently through the hours as the thermometer inched higher, making the prospect of a backyard barbecue welcome.  A farewell party for a friend of 18 years.  More than a friend.  A fellow expatriate.  Who now was going back, flying across what the British mockingly call "The Pond" to America with her two sons.  It's hard to say good bye after so many years.  Wondering just how final a good bye it could prove.
     So thoughts were riveted on the void that wasn't yet, but soon would be.  Not on the tunnel of the Regional Express subway as it glided inexorably from station to station on Line B, cutting Paris in half, north-south.  Châtelet ... St. Michel... Luxembourg... Port Royal... Denfert... A much-traveled line, pumping inbound suburbanites to their city jobs every morning.
     Now the workday was over.  They were on their way home.  And I to a party.
     I always take the RER to cross Paris.  Less stops.  Shorter travel time.  Quieter, roomier, more streamlined cars designed in the Eighties for a new generation of mass transit.  Computer-controlled to speed one just behind the other, especially at rush hour.  Progress.
      Which is why it seemed strange, as I arrived at my station and walked up the stairs and out the doors, to see the oncoming RER stopped on the track.  Traffic must be backed up, I thought, and walked on to the party, thinking no more about it.

About an hour into the festivities, my friend's phone rang, and it was for me.  My son in L.A.
     A tense "Are you all right?"
     And then the news, from halfway around the world.  Two trains behind me a nameless killer had left a bomb under one of the seats in the last car, the car I always run to catch as the train sounds its imminent departure.  Four dead.  Dozens more on the critical list.  Legs instantly amputated by the blast.
     I reassured my son, hung up and announced the news.  Everyone shouted "What!"  We stared at each other.  Someone turned on the TV and we all sat in a silent row, eyes riveted to the screen, trying to understand the horror.  Who?  Why?

How the world has changed since the snug safety of my childhood Fifties.  Here was terrorism for no known reason by no avowed person.  How could anyone understand!  It has happened in Paris before, but not for ten years.  Now it will all start again.  The trash cans in the stations nailed shut.  The warnings broadcast over the PA stations.  The darting, apprehensive glances among passengers.  The willful choosing of the "right" car.  The safe one.
     Terrorism has become a global phenomenon in a global village.  There we were, unaware of how close we were to the epicenter of hatred, awakened to our vulnerability by a call from the other side of the world.  Two trains.  Five minutes.  So tenuous a distance.
     On the way to a party.  To say good bye.  How fitting a lesson.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Doors to Nowhere

There’s an address in Montmartre.  No. 2 rue du Calvaire.
     It’s a blue enamel plaque with the number 2 in white, mounted on a stone wall.
     That’s all.
     You’ll find it if you take the long stairway spilling south down the Butte to what used to be an art supplies shop but is now a “snack bar” selling “take-away“.  Until almost the end of the 20th century, it sold oil paints, canvases, brushes, palettes... anything and everything needed by the starving artists of the Place du Tertre who have lived nearby since the 1870s in damp, slum-worthy rooms tucked under the rooftops of Montmartre - scorching hot in summer, damp and freezing in winter... and some not too much improved even in my lifetime.
     Directly across from that shop is a short walkway, no more than four or five cobblestones wide and thirty-some long, nesstled between those stairs and that stone wall.
     No. 2 rue du Calvaire has no door.  No window.  Just the wall plaque.  And yet the placement of the stones below the plaque kind of outlines what might once have been a doorway.  You might just imagine the line of mortar is a bit thicker than the rest and the stones inside that line of mortar seem not to be staggered like the rest of the wall.
     Behind the wall is an abandoned garden of grass.  There’s no house and no foundation.  I don’t see how there ever could have been a house there.  It’s just a steep slope with no steps or walk leading anywhere.
     A number on a wall around a garden.  That’s No. 2 rue du Calvaire.
     One of the mysteries of Montmartre, a strange Alice-in-Wonderland type place within the oh-so-thought-out and rational city of Paris.

There’s another cryptic stone wall on the opposite side of Montmartre.  It also shelters a hidden garden.
     But the one in the north slope has a larger-than-life bronze statue striding out of its wall.  One bronze leg, one arm, the front half of a torso and a head.
     It’s the Passe-Muraille, The Man Who Could Pass Through Walls.  He’s the main character from a short story by Marcel Aymé, a French author who lived right there for decades.  The story starts out “Il y avait à Montmartre, au troisième étage du 75 bis de la rue d'Orchampt, un excellent homme nommé Dutilleul qui possédait le don singulier de passer à travers les murs sans en être incommodé.” (In Montmartre, on the fourth floor of 75½  rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent man named Dutilleul who had the extraordinary ability of walking through walls with perfect ease.)  The hero of the story, a timid clerk, grows bored with his dull life and becomes a cat burglar who uses his talent to walk through walls and rob banks. Even when he’s caught, he can’t be held in prison because... well, you get the picture.  In his new persona, he takes a mistress, spending passionate moments with her until her husband comes home and he slips away through the wall.
     Then one day he takes some medicine that makes him ... well, let’s say, more opaque.   And when the husband comes home and our hero slips into the wall to escape, he can’t get out the other side.  And there he remains, trapped in that wall to this very day, somewhere on the north slope of Montmartre.

This was the neighborhood my children grew up in.  Rich in art and literature, full of images and stories.  Montmartre has changed, but I'd like to think you could still find it, if you looked hard enough.  Maybe behind doors in walls.  Even if they don’t open.

N.B.  There is no Number 75½ in the rue d’Orchampt, which is a short side-street.  I live there now, and the highest number on the street is 14, I think.  Why did Aymé choose this street?  Who knows, except that he and his wife ate daily at a restaurant a block away from his apartment on what is now the Square Marcel Aymé, by the statue-in-the-wall, and that restaurant was at the corner of the rue Lepic and the dog-leg alley that connects up with (and indeed bears the name of) the rue d’Orchampt.  The restaurant has since been sold to a high-end restaurateur, and both Aymé and his wife are both deceased.

Another mysterious Montmartre door-wall in my sreet

Monday, April 1, 2013

Recipe of the Month: Bouillabaisse

As it bubbles away

Nothing is more Marseillais than bouillabaisse... unless it’s France’s national anthem, which is actually called La Marseillaise.  But in the realm of cuisine, say bouillabaisse and you’re immediately transported to this port city on the Mediterranean, which has been around since Greek sailors founded it in about 600 B.C.
The harbor of Marseille
     As a matter of fact, bouillabaisse itself may be Greek originally, but let’s not take that away from the people of Marseille, pronounced "mar-say".  (And no, there is no “s” on the end, in French.)
Notre-Dame de la Garde
     The name comes from the Provençal word bouipeis, which means “boil the fish”, and is pronounced "boo-ya-bess".  Although it’s often considered a soup, it’s really a whole meal.  That does depend on the amount of fish you put in it... and, of course, the croutons.  As a matter of fact, this dish is often eaten in two stages - first the broth and then the fish - but people who insist on that are really purists and should have their own end of the table.
     Bouillabaisse was traditionally made by fishermen using fish from their catch, fish they didn’t sell.  These fish are mostly varieties from the Mediterranean:  rascasse, vive, saint-pierre, congre, daurade, merlan, lotte de mer, grondin.  That makes it somewhat difficult to reproduce here in the Great Lakes (or elsewhere) in its traditional version, but what you basically need is a blend of some delicate, mild-tasting fish (sole, flounder, whiting, mullet, red snapper) as well as some strongly-flavored fish (mackerel, cod, sea bass, hake, haddock).  Ask the fish counter to help you choose a balanced mix.
Besides, remember that the fishermen used what they had left over, so that gives you some leeway.  Just cook with what’s available locally, but make sure the different types of fish have a good contrast in textures and flavors.
      Yes, bouillabaisse is a bit of work, but remember that you can make the fish stock the previous day, as well as the rouille (pronounced "roo-yah"), and refrigerate them overnight.  Then all you have to do is just reheat the stock and finish with the fish part of the recipe.  And as I said, it is a one-course meal, so no sides to worry about!

Stronger fish:  mackerel,
hake & bass
Fish stock:
  • 3 leeks, whites only, chopped
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped 
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped 
  • 1 t each of chopped fresh savory, thyme and rosemary (or ½ t dried)
  • 3 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 sprigs parsley
  • 2 lbs fish bones and heads
  • 2 c dry white wine

Milder fish:  tilapia, snapper & flounder
Fish and marinade:
  • 2 lbs of strong-flavored fish
  • 2 lbs of mild, delicate fish
  • 1 lb eel (optional, except in Marseilles)
  • salt & freshly-ground pepper
  • 1 packet of saffron threads (or 1 t ground saffron)
  • 1/4 t each of ground thyme, savory and rosemary
  • 1 t anise liqueur (could be Pernod or similar aperitif)
  • 1/4 c olive oil

Rest of ingredients:
  • 2 T olive oil
  • ½ t orange rind, chopped and dried (or about a 2" piece)
  • 1/4 c tomato paste, 1½ c peeled, diced tomatoes, or 4 ripe tomatoes in season
  • 1 medium boiled potato
  • 1/4 c canned red pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • tabasco to taste

Bringing it all together:

- If you’re making your own fish stock, heat the oil and butter in a stockpot (enamelware is better than aluminum for this).  Add in the leeks, onions, celery, carrots and herbs.  Cook slowly until the vegetables are tender but not browned.   Add the bay leaf and parsley.  Cover with 2 quarts of water and the white wine.  Then add the fish bones, bring to a boil and let cook over high heat for 30 minutes at a slow boil.  (You’ll need no salt or pepper at this stage.)  Strain through a fine sieve and set aside until you’re ready to finish the dish.  You can even put it, covered, in the refrigerator overnight.
Otherwise, bring the equivalent amount of store-bought stock to a boil.

- Place the fish, cut into 2"-thick pieces, in a deep bowl and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Add the saffron, herbs and anise, then the olive oil.  Stir and place in the refrigerate to marinate for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

- Peel, seed and drain the tomatoes if they’re in season, then puree them in a food processor.  Otherwise use the canned tomatoes, drained, or else the easiest:  the tomato paste.

- When you’re ready to finish up the dish, heat 2 T of olive oil, and then add the strong-flavored fish and the marinade.  Let simmer for a minute or two, then add the stock, orange rind and tomatoes, stir and bring to a boil.  Cook uncovered on high for 5 minutes.  Add in the delicate fish and boil 10 minutes more.  (I marinated them in two separate bowls, so I could easily tell them apart.)
- To serve up, place slices of stale French-type bread or croutons in the bottom of a soup tureen or individual soup dishes and ladle the bouillabaisse over the top.  Accompany with a rouille sauce which you can buy in a specialty shop, or else blend all four ingredients above in a food processor until smooth, if necessary adding bit by bit just enough olive oil to obtain a mayonnaise-like consistency.

Serves 6-8

Accompany with a chilled rosé from Provence 

Note: Everyone thinks that bouillabaisse is a big deal to make, but it really doesn’t take much prep time.  I opted for the tomato paste and also used the orange rind cut into strips, which I fished out (pun intended) before serving, and a native of Marseille told me it was "just like at home".  So there are shortcuts you can use to make things easier.  If you get the fish market to cut the fish up for you, if you make the fish stock the previous day or if you buy a good fish stock (try it first before you start the recipe), if you can find a jar of rouille... it takes amazingly little time.  Good, flavorful stock and fresh fish of different sorts are the keys here.  I made the stock myself and it took only 15 minutes of prep time and 30 minutes of cooking time.  The fish took 10 minutes for the marinade and then just sat overnight in the fridge.  The final bit took no prep time and only 25 minutes cooking time.  It was pretty painless.  Of course, I cheated and used a prepared rouille that I had, but even if I’d made it, it would have taken just 5 minutes maximum in the food processor, plus the time to boil the potato in advance.  So don’t be discouraged by the number of ingredients or the reputation of this dish. The result is colorful, hearty and delicious.

(Ground saffron loses its flavor quickly and sometimes is cut with turmeric, so it has less flavor in that form.  Buy the little plastic packets of saffron threads, which are far better.  1 gram equals about 1/2 teaspoon, so I used the entire packet.)