Thursday, December 3, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Petit-gris de charente en surprise

December.  Another whole year gone by!  It never failed to catch me unprepared.  Just barely recovered from Thanksgiving - complete with taking the door off the hinges to seat all the guests in my Paris apartment - and it was already time to think of special dishes for the end-of-year festivities!
     Typically, Christmas dinner in France is a family affair; friends are invited for la Saint-Sylvestre, New Year’s Eve.  Christmas dinner used to be enjoyed after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but it’s now often slipped over into Christmas Day.  The typical menu is roast turkey - or goose - with chestnut stuffing, followed by a bûche de Noël.
     For those of you who aren’t really fond of the traditional foie-gras or oyster appetizers, this recipe is simple yet special.  The only hard part is scooping out the inside of a cooked potato.  It’s typically French in its ingredients, which I’ve left as Chef Jacques Cagna dictated for those of you actually cooking in France.  The shrimp he uses are petit-gris, a variety that I haven’t seen in America, but which can be replaced by tiny cocktail shrimp, or even larger shrimp cut into small pieces.
     Another of the ingredients is anisette, which is easy to find in most French homes, especially in Provence.  This adds another layer to the dish, a special je ne sais quoi, and makes it more festive.  If it’s hard to find or expensive, you can always use sambucca or ouzo.  Or even some anise extract, which you can find in almost any grocery store.
     Cagna also uses grenaille potatoes, which are small and smooth skinned.  I’ve replaced them here by red potatoes because of their cheerful red color but more especially because they hold up under cooking and will cause less problems when you try to hollow them out.
     So, before Santa and his reindeer land on your roof... to your stoves!  And Joyeux Noël!

  • 8 grenaille or 4 medium-sized red potatoes 
  • 6 T unsalted butter
  • 1 T parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 hazelnuts/walnuts, finely chopped
  • 1 small tsp anisette or anise extract
  • 24 petits-gris or tiny cocktail shrimp
  • salt, freshly ground pepper

- Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water.
- When they’re cooked, cut a thin slice lengthwise off the bottom so the potato lays flat.  Then slice off the top.
- Carefully remove most of the inside.  (As a precaution, cook a few extra, just in case.)  Keep the cooked potato for other uses, for example a potato frittata or to add to a spinach and bacon salad..
- While the potatoes are cooking, mix the butter, parsley, shallot and garlic in a food processor.
- By hand, blend in the nuts (optional), then the anisette.
- Season to taste with salt and freshly-ground pepper.
- Into each potato shell, put three petit-gris shrimp (or several shrimp or shrimp pieces).
- Top with a dollop of the butter mix.  For a pretty finish, use a pastry bag.
- Bake in the oven at 350°F for 10 minutes.

Serve with a chilled dry white wine, such as a pouilly-fumé.  Serves 4.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Out and About: Exhibits: Osiris, Mystères engloutis d'Egypte

Priest holding Osiris
An old friend has suggested meeting at the Institut du Monde Arabe, the museum that specializes in All (Art) Things Arab.  And the subject of the particular exhibit she wants to see interests me greatly:  Ancient Egyptian artworks found underwater just off the delta of the Nile.
     There’s a bus that will drop me off directly in front of the museum, although it takes a very long time, given Paris traffic.  We manage to find each other in spite of my lateness, have a bite of Middle Eastern food at the museum’s café... and then we step into the darkness (perhaps a bit too much darkness) of the netherworld.

Pectoral of the sky, 10th c B.C.
“Osiris, the son of the Earth and the Sky was killed by his brother Seth, who cut his body into 14 pieces and threw them into the Nile.  Isis, sister and wife of Osiris, put the body of the god back together again using her magical powers, and conceived their son, Horus. Osiris then became the Lord of the Afterlife, and Horus, victorious against Seth, received Egypt as his heritage.”
goddess of the Nile
     That’s how the exhibit starts:  with an explanation of the gods revered, especially Osiris. My first thought was “Doesn’t that first line remind you a bit of the Bible?”  If you see the Earth as being Eve and the Sky as Adam (or vice versa), Osiris would become Abel and Seth would be Cain.  And there you have a parallel story of fratricide.
     That’s only one of the many thoughts I have while walking through this magnificent exhibit of the many wonders archaeologists have literally dredged up from the bottom of the Bay of Aboukir, where they’d lain for centuries.  Luckily, the delta muck actually preserved the artworks somewhat from the corrosiveness of the salty Mediterranean water.  But it took much painstaking work to remove all the algae, barnacles and other mollusks without damaging the artworks, as shown in several videos projected on the walls and in the small theater area complete with benches for those of us whose legs are getting tired.

The exhibition is made up of three sections. The first presents the myth of Osiris, and is guarded by a huge statue of Hapi, the god  of the annual flooding of the Nile.  The largest of the three parts is the second, which covers the archaeological sites and the ritual celebration of the mysteries of Osiris.  The final section shows how the ancient myth evolved over time and space, how it was adapted at different sites, which explains the diversity of the myth’s representations.
   Throughout, the lighting is minimal, which makes it hard to read the explanatory signs - although one of the guards said they would be pumping up the lighting a bit in a few days because they had so many complaints.  Still, the darkness accentuates the drama of the actual art pieces, which are spotlighted just right: easy to discern by leaving enough shadow to set off a statue’s inscriptions and features.
     In the footage taken underwater, you see how the artworks were discovered, then uncovered, and what difficult conditions the archaeologists had to work under.  Murky doesn’t even come close to describing the visibility the divers “enjoyed” as they carried out their underwater excavation five miles offshore at the Magnus-Alexandria, Canope and Thonis-Heracleion sites.  The last two of these sites stretched over an area of 7 x 6 miles (11 x 10 km), a gigantic undertaking when everything is covered by up to two millennia of sediment.  But magnetic and bathymetric (underwater topography) exploration equipment proved up to the task.
Apis, 2nd c A.D.

Hapi, 4th c B.C.
Why were all these masterpieces under water?  Because of natural catastrophes.  The delta region experienced earthquakes several times, some of them powerful enough to cause tidal waves.  And then there’s the annual flooding of the Nile, which was heavy some years.  There’s also the sheer weight of the buildings, given that some were constructed on clay soil, which provides a poor foundation.  In addition, the eastern Mediterranean has been sinking for centuries, and the level of the Mediterranean has been rising, a fact that will only continue with today’s trend toward global warming.  All this combined to cause catastrophes in the 2nd century BC, along with the 5th and especially late 8th centuries A.D.
     All these works are on loan from various museums of Egypt.  Seeing them together in one place is a gift, and also very powerful.  As my friend and I left, we were blinded by the Paris sun - something hard to do at this season of the year - our heads filled with splendid images and our minds raring to find out more about this fascinating topic.

Mystères engloutis d’Egypte

Institut du Monde Arabe
1 rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard; 5è
Métro: Sully-Morland, Jussieu, Cardinal Lemoine

Until January 31, 2016
T-Th 10-7 / F 10-9:30 / Sat & Sun 10-8
Closed Mondays

15.50 & 12.50 €

Bérénice, 2nd c B.C.

Here’s the link to the show’s website.
If it doesn’t come up in English, there’s a little US-UK flag you can click on to get it.

And here’s a link to an article on the discovery at Heracleion:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Lapin à la moutarde

All right.  I know I’m going to lose a lot of you here, but bear with me. This month’s recipe is lapin à la moutarde, otherwise known as rabbit with mustard.  To most Americans, the idea of eating a bunny, a poor little Peter Rabbit, is just too hard to bear.  My father was a hunter, so I grew up eating rabbit, pheasant and even squirrel (which does indeed have a nutty taste).  Wild rabbit, on the other hand, has a fines herbes taste, especially in France where the lapins de garenne of Provence thrive on the thyme and rosemary growing wild everywhere.  Unless you get your rabbit from a hunter, though, the rabbit you’ll find at the market is the farm-grown variety and far less “gamey”.  It tastes a bit like chicken.  Well, turkey actually.
     You may also be relieved to know that it is a lean meat.  Low in fat and cholesterol, high in protein, raised without hormones, usually containing no stimulants, additives or preservatives.  And it’s easily digested, which is why the American Heart Foundation and the American Medical Association recommend it for people on special diets.  Have I got your attention yet?
     One of the ingredients for this dish, crème fraîche, is something sold everywhere in France but seldom found on the shelves of American supermarkets, although you can usually find it in specialty stores.  Sour cream is too sour and can curdle when cooked.  Heavy cream is too thin. And neither gives the same result.  One solution is to heat (not boil) one cup of heavy cream and then mix it with 1 teaspoon of buttermilk and let it stand at room temperature until the mixture thickens (6 hours or more, depending on the room temperature).   Don’t worry about it going bad; this is how yoghurt is made.   But once it thickens, you have to refrigerate it; you can keep for up to a week.  Hint:  the rest of the buttermilk can be used for a wonderfully rich chocolate cake.  Second hint:  if you did find crème fraîche and didn’t use all of it, you’ll be happy to know that crème fraîche, unlike sour cream, can be beaten into whipped cream.

  • a 3-lb rabbit, cut in pieces
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 T peanut oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 minced shallots
  • 2 branches of fresh rosemary
  • 4 T Dijon mustard
  • 2 T crème fraîche 
  • 2 egg yolks
  • juice of ½ lemon

- Brown the rabbit pieces evenly in the oil and butter over fairly high heat.  (You can play around with the proportion of oil and butter to suit your tastes and diet, but using some butter will give a better flavor and the oil keeps the butter from going brown.)
- Lower the heat and add the rosemary, shallots, salt and pepper.  Simmer covered for about 30 minutes or until the meat is tender, adding a bit of liquid chicken stock or cognac if it goes dry before it’s thoroughly cooked.
- Remove the rosemary.
- Blend the Dijon mustard with the crème fraîche, egg yolks and lemon juice.  Mix well and pour over the rabbit.
- Simmer over very low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly.

Serves 4.  Accompany with rice or boiled potatoes to make the most of the sauce.

You can see it’s an easy recipe:  only 5-10 minutes of preparation for 40 minutes cooking.  You can make it even easier by eliminating the egg yolk and lemon juice, but I think it has more layers of flavor this way.  Or you could make it more rustic by using a bit of moutarde à l’ancienne (the one with the mustard seed in it):  3 T Dijon to 1 T ancienne.  And don’t worry about it being too strong because cooking the mustard removes a lot of its “bite”.

Recommended wine:  a red burgundy (Savigny-les-Beaune) or a dry chablis if you prefer white

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Out & About: Exhibits - Splendeurs et Misères

One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Orsay Museum.  And there’s a good reason for that:  Impressionism.  Which I love.
     What’s more, I love the building that houses this museum:  the former Orsay railroad station, a Belle Epoque building of great beauty.  And as the Impressionist period basically corresponds to France’s Belle Epoque - usually defined as running from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 - it’s very fitting that the Ministry of Culture, in its infinite wisdom, chose to repurpose this Belle Epoque edifice as the showplace of Impressionism.

Right now there’s a major art show at the Orsay:  Splendor and Misery - Images of Prostitution in France.  “Oh, those French,” I can hear you say.  “Trust them to put sex into an art show.”
     Well, not having a clear idea what a exhibit on such a topic would offer, I decided to go find out.  And I’m glad I did because, as with any major exhibit, there are artworks here that you will never see together in one place again.  Although the majority come from the Orsay’s own cache, along with quite a few from another Paris museum, the Carnavalet, there are also works from The Met in New York City, Chicago’s Art Institute, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and even one from Williamstown, Massachussets.  And as there are many works by Van Gogh, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has also sent many of its masterpieces to Paris for the event.

All French museums, including Orsay, like to explain to you what you’re seeing.  Although the lighting is dim to protect the artworks, you can read huge panels - in French with an excellent version in English - at the entrance to every room.  There are smaller ones for individual works, but they’re only in French, so perhaps you’d want to rent the audiocassettes*, which I think run only 5€.
     There are many interesting facts on these panels.  One speaks of “amours tarifiés”, a tongue-in-cheek definition of prostitution as “love at a price”.  The panel at the very start states that this theme of prostitution was exclusively a masculine realm.  No Suzanne Valadon or Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt here.   It goes on to say that this first section is a reflection of “the ambiguity of the era’s social situation”, “the burden of the feminine condition of modern times”.  And it adds something that could apply to our own era, more than a century later:  “In working-class circles, women who had modest jobs - such as manual workers, milliners, florists or laundresses - were too poorly paid to afford decent accommodations or feed themselves adequately, especially if they had a family to support. Some therefore occasionally resorted to prostitution to supplement their earnings.”  (I also learned that laws then prohibited soliciting during daylight, and thus the origin of the term “ladies of the night”.)
The Absinthe Drinker, Edgar Degas
     The artwork here includes many famous paintings that aren’t usually associated with prostitution.  But as Nice Women of the era didn’t frequent cafés, “The Absinthe Drinker” by Degas is part of the theme.  And as the dancers of the Paris Ballet also often sidelined as courtesans, the “Prima Ballerina” taking a bow, also by Degas, covers that side of the topic.  Toulouse-Lautrec is widely represented, given his fascination with both cafés and prostitutes; I saw are at least two that I’m very familiar with:  “At the Moulin Rouge” and “The Redhead”.  Manet’s most widely known masterpiece, Olympia, is usually thought of as a nude rather than specifically as a prostitute, but I guess there’s room for doubt so it also is there, along with a spoof of it - also called Olympia - by Manet’s old friend Cézanne, in which the setting is more obviously a brothel, complete with man in top hat, waiting.
     There are many different mediums in this first section, running the entire gamut:  pen-and-ink, gouache, pastels, oils, etchings and lithographs.

After several rooms focusing on women who might be plying their wares, either as a trade or as
Au Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
additional income off-hours, comes a narrow hallway decorated with wallpaper, floor to ceiling, depicting an old Paris street as seen in two photos in next room.  Those two photos show two of many brothels, and  the tone changes radically as of this point.  The rest of the exhibit focuses totally on love for sale, whether by a prostitute on the street or in a brothel, or by a courtesan, some of whom made a lot of money, married well and got out of the business.
     Display cases hold sheet music sold in the street - even in Edith Piaf’s time - illustrated by drawings by famous artists.  As some songs in those days were about the ladies of the night...
     To include a sociological viewpoint, there’s documentation on the jails where these women often ended up, or the hospitals where their syphilis and other venereal diseases were treated.  There’s even a side room, closed off with red velvet curtains with signs forbidding access to those under 18. As curious as ever, I went in, but soon left because porn films and photos, albeit from the Belle Epoque, aren’t my thing.  More interesting was the furniture and furnishings from the homes of those rich courtesans, although the style is  a bit too over-the-top for me,
     And I learned something I didn’t know:  that Picasso’s famous "Demoiselles d’Avignon" - which normally lives in New York’s MOMA - is not just a bunch of nude ladies with strange faces.  They’re not bathing in the Rhone River in Avignon, France, as I thought.  They’re waiting for clients at the Avignon Bordello in Barcelona.  Another illusion dashed. Guess I lead a sheltered life.
     It’s an interesting exhibit, if only for the first section.  You can go at your own speed, gloss over what you don’t enjoy and focus on what you do. Besides, there’s the entire rest of the museum to explore as well.  Not to mention lunch or tea in the Belle Epoque restaurant, with its beautiful brass and mirrors and all the rest of what goes with Belle Epoque décors. But be sure you get the right place; it’s located above the entrance and is not to be confused with the snack bar on the top floor.

P.S.  If you wonder what that lub-dub lub-dub sound is you hear and feel as you go through the lower rooms of the Orsay, it’s the trains rolling along the rails on the line running under the museum.

Splendeurs et Misères - Images of 
Prostitution in France (1850-1910)

Musée d’Orsay
1 rue de la Légion-d’Honneur; 7è
Métro:  Solférino, RER B Musée d’Orsay

Until January 17, 2016
T-Sun 9:30-6 / Th open until 9:45
Closed Mondays

11 & 8.50 €

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Les Vendanges à Montmartre

Clos Montmartre
Every fall, Montmartre celebrates something that's part of its heritage: les vendanges, the harvest of the grapes.
     Clos Montmartre is the wine made from what is billed as “the city’s last working vineyard”.
Although grapes had always been grown here, residential sprawl and then phylloxera destroyed the remnants of its vineyards in the early 20th century.  Lusted over by property developers, the one remaining plot was revived in 1933 by a group of local artists led by Francis Poulbot, a famous illustrator.  These artists petitioned the government to grant them the land so they could replant the vines.  Knowing that French law states that nothing can be built on a vineyard, they saved this small patch of nature from the builder’s shovel

The Montmartre wine specialists, in full regalia
After the grapes are harvested each year, they’re taken to the district’s City Hall, where they’re pressed, fermented and bottled in the basement - about 1,700 bottles squeezed out of the 1,900 vines of 28 different grape varieties (mostly gamay and pinot noir).  And sporting labels designed by local artists.  This has been done every autumn since 1934, except during World War II.
   The steep vineyard faces north at the corner of the rue des Saules and rue Saint Vincent.  Not the best exposure for sun-loving grapes.  The resulting wine used to be called a pisse-dru, a scathing term which could mercifully be translated as a diuretic.  When I was asked Saturday whether I would like to try some - at a steep price of €50 for a 50-cl bottle - I said I already had, and smiled.  Evidently the wine’s quality has improved greatly over recent years under the tutelage of oenologist Francis Gourdin, who took over the vineyard in 1995.  Although some critics deem it “decent enough”, food writer Alain Neyman says politely, "You buy it for pleasure, as a souvenir of a fun event. (...) Recent bottles have become collectors' items."
The Bretons with binious
     The wine is auctioned off during the Vendanges festival and proceeds go to local charities, a tradition started by the artist Poulbot for the poor children of the Butte Montmartre immortalized in his paintings.
     Each year there are harvest godparents.  The firsr godmother in 1934 was the legendary Mistinguett.  This year the godparents were model-cum-actress Mélanie Thierry and singer Raphaël, who form an unwed couple with a child in real life (see below).

Les P'tits Poulbots
Which leads us neatly from the reason behind the celebration to one of the most popular events linked with it since 2007:   the non-demandes en mariage, or non-weddings (thus the reference to Mélanie and Raphaël).  The idea comes from a famous song by Georges Brassens with the refrain, “I have the honor / of not asking / for your hand.”  This year you had to sign up before September 25th, which gave you time to decide whether you wanted to back out of not getting married.  The mayor himself officiates at your non-wedding, making it official.  And each year the number of couples who get not-married grows larger.
Japanese children
     There was also a huge fireworks display Saturday night from the foot of the Sacré-Coeur.  In other words, from the playground right across from the building where my children grew up.  If we still lived there, we would have had front-row seats for a fantastic pyrotechnic show.  As it was, I benefitted fully from the noise a few blocks away but missed out on the light show, catching only flashes in the Paris sky.
     It all ended Sunday night with a ball from 5 to 8 pm at the same place as the previous night’s fireworks.  The music was international, reflecting this year’s planetary theme.  There were biguines from the French West Indies, cumblas from Colombia, boleros and rumbas from Cuba... everything down to the Good old Parisian Apache dance.

Other events?  Well, during the week one of the professional high schools that train young people for jobs in industry - this one the hotel industry - offered up a meal.  There was a party with a mini-parade where the children dressed up like Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, The Little Prince, one of the key literary works that talked about saving the planet long before it became Touchy-Feely to do so. There was a song-fest by the elementary school children of the arrondissement:  900 chidren this year, which is quite a chorale.
     Of course there were booths scattered around the area, handing out samples so you could taste the specialties that make France delicious.  Wine, of course, but also pâtes, cheeses, chocolates and other goodies such as cotton candy, which the French call barbe à papa - Daddy’s beard.  There were also balloon sellers and even a balloon sculptor making those balloon giraffes and dachshunds children so love.  A wall 200 meters long covered with murals by local artists.  A public ball, including Bollywood dancers when the French dancers get tired.  And of course speeches, starting with the one in the vineyards already stripped of their grapes.
     Plus the parade that snaked through a lot of Montmartre.  In it were wine-connected groups from all over France, as well as one group focused on strawberries and another on melon, those small, flavor-packed cantaloupes from southern France.  And there were musical groups, many with a Brazilian sound, but as always a  biniou group from Brittany, blowing on the Breton version of the bagpipes.  This year’s participants included young people from Japan dressed up in kimonos and a group from Ukraine who looked really happy to be elsewhere than back home.  But the stars of the parade are the P’tits Poulbots, the drum corps of children and teenagers, Montmartre’s vintage way to keep its kids busy and out of trouble.  And these kids can drum!
     The Vendanges is the Big Moment for Montmartre, event-wise.  A bit kitsch, for sure.  But we’ve learned to grin and bear it, and even embrace it.  And then we rejoice when all the additional tourists, Parisian and foreign, go home and leave us to our Butte.
     But the children enjoy it, especially the balloon-and-candy side of it. And it’s only once a year.

To hear an NPR piece on the Clos Montmartre:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Out and About: Journée sans Voiture

Last week-end was Heritage Days, Journées Patrimoine.  This Sunday was No Traffic Day, Journée sans voiture.
     And given the traffic in Paris, even on a Sunday, the latter was probably more of a stress on the city than the former.  Because it consisted of blocking automobile traffic from whole sections of town from 11 in the morning until 6 p.m.
     The sky was a lovely blue, so once I got my errands and house-cleaning done, I decided rather belatedly to see how it was going and what success it was having.
     Again I jumped in the trusty Métro and headed for what would probably be the most potentially problematic place:  the Champs-Elysées.

Now the No Traffic Day maps said that the whole center of the Right Bank would be car-free, from the Seine River on the south to the Bastille on the east to the Grands Boulevards on the north and the Opera/Madeleine on the west, with a tentacle stretching west up the Champs-Elysées and another tentacle north along the Canal St. Martin.  (The Left Bank was also pedestrian from the arching Boulevard St. Germain to the river.)
     I decided to get off the Métro at Madeleine, so I could take a photo from the middle of the street down to Concorde and another up to Opéra, a feat that would normally get you run over in, oh, five seconds, guaranteed.  With no traffic, it would make for fantastic shots!  But as I came up the steps, I distinctly heard car traffic.  And when I reached street level, there were cars, albeit moving slower than usual, all around the Madeleine and up and down the boulevards leading in both directions.  So much for the fantastic shots I would get.
     So I walked down the Rue Royale to the Place de la Concorde, cars traveling in both directions.  When I got there, my illusions of taking a photo from the Obelisk in the center of this vast plaza up what’s touted - by the French at least - as the World’s Most Beautiful Avenue.  Cars were circling the plaza as they always do.  I looked at my watch, wondering if I’d lost three hours somewhere - in a time warp while on the subway, for instance - and the event was already over.  Perhaps the whole thing had been a bust and City Hall just gave up?
     But no, police were preventing cars from turning into the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.  I heard drivers haggling with the officers.  “But I’m only going a few blocks!”  “Are you a taxi?  No, then you can’t!  It’s closed!”  And as I looked up the avenue - ten lanes wide and over a mile long - all I saw was a flood of people.  On foot.  On scooters (the foot-propelled kind, not the motorized kind).  Bikes, lots and lots of bikes.  The only thing motorized was one Segway (they can be rented at a Concorde stall on normal days) but the man on it seemed to be helping people with directions or other problems, so maybe he was sent by the Mayor Annie Hidalgo to do damage control.  Mostly it was just thousands and thousands of people walking.
     I did something I’d wanted to go for decades; I walked right up the median line in the middle of the street.  It was kind of empowering.  I passed people sitting on the hallowed cobblestones; two women were even having a picnic.  Some young athletes had come with a goal and set up a soccer game.  Many children were there with Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpas to ride their pint-sized bikes on places where they would never have stood a chance of survival otherwise.  I’ll bet it’ll go down as a Red Letter Day in their memories.
   Halfway up the Champs-Elysées, I’d had enough of the crowd.  I thought I’d head down to the quais, the street running along the Seine.  But as I got to the Grand Palais, I saw and heard cars down along the riverbank, so I decided to call it a day.
     On my way back to the Métro to head home, I saw one of the riot police in front of the American Embassy talking to a boy aged about seven.  In spite of his extremely lethal semi-automatic, he was smiling and answering a question, which might well have been “Have you ever killed anyone with that?”  He seemed to be in a good mood, so I asked him “Which do you prefer:  the cars or the people?”  He told me the cars were easier because there were far too many people milling about today to make him comfortable.  I hadn’t thought of it from that angle.
     Then I saw an elderly lady standing, befuddled, just a few feet away on the corner of the plaza.  She was looking up and down, afraid to step off the curb.  I asked her if she needed help and she told me she wanted to cross the street but there were too many cyclists zipping every which way.  I gave her my arm and we walked across the busy intersection, then wished each other a good day and went our separate ways.  I hadn’t thought of how the chaotic anarchy of bikes and people and scooters and all could be disconcerting.  To me it was just people taking the streets back.

As far as I know, no one was run over by an errant bicycle, although I personally had a few close calls.  No police were hurt in the execution of this event, again to my knowledge, but there sure were a lot of unhappy motorists.
     As for the rest of us, it was amazing!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Recipe of the Month - Moules marinière

Summer’s over, so is the semi-summer of September, and October is here, the first of the months with an “r” ... Yes, I know that’s for oysters, but it holds true for any shellfish.  Eating oysters only in months with an “r” in them is an idea left over from the days of poor refrigeration, when you could take your life in your hands by eating something capable of spoiling so drastically in such a short time when temperatures soar.  Muscles are great on a hot summer day at the beach, but mussels... not so much.
  Mention moules and people tend to think Belgium.  But mussels are actually a favorite dish all along the French coast and even far inland, where the Léon de Bruxelles franchise offers Parisian diners a wonderful alternative to other fast food joints.  AND the mussels even come with fries!
  There are many moules recipes.  The Belgians cook theirs with onion, white wine and celery. For moules à la crème, add rich thick crème fraîche to the broth at the end.  You can even make an Indian-style dish by adding some curry!  One recipe I discovered years ago in a little guinguette on the Seine River downstream from Paris was moules catalanes, from the Barcelona coast, and it called for a lot of finely chopped garlic, a dash of tabasco and a bit of tomato paste in addition to the white wine. But moules marinières is what you find the most often in France.  And it’s dead easy.
  Mussels seem to be sold by the pound in America.  Count about 1 to 1½ pound per person, which isn’t too much if you consider that the shell is the heaviest part of the mussel.  On the coast you may find them sold by the quart; one quart usually weighs 1 1/4 pound.
  You don’t need to add salt to this recipe because mussels are salt-water shellfish and they come by their salt naturally.
  When the moules are served, pick a small mussel shell to use as pinchers to eat the rest.  You won’t burn your fingers in the hot broth and everyone will think you’re a real pro.

     - 6 lb mussels
     -  ½ c minced shallots
     - 2 c dry white wine
     - 6 large sprigs of parsley
     - 3 T butter
     - freshly ground pepper
     - minced parsley to decorate

First and foremost, if you find any shells that are open, prick the mussel inside with a sharp knife.  If the mussel is still alive, the shell will close; if it doesn’t move, it’s dead and you need to throw it out.
     Most mussels now come cleaned, but if not simply scrub them with a vegetable or nail brush to remove any dirt.  If there are any barnacles on the shell just scrape them off with a knife, along with any seaweed “beard”. Usually just rinsing the mussels well in cold water and rubbing them against each other is enough to clean them.  You may get a tiny bit of sand at the bottom of the broth once the mussels are cooked, but you can strain that off.  Some American cookbooks tell you to soak the mussels so they open and lose their sand, but then you lose that saltwater taste.  They won’t lose that much sand anyway, and any sand that is left you can strain off from the broth once they’re cooked.

- Mince the shallots.
- Put the cleaned mussels in a large pot with the white wine to create some steam.  Add the shallots and the sprigs of parsley.  Cover tightly and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes, shaking frequently without opening the pot so that all the mussels steam open.
- Put the cooked mussels in a large serving bowl, strain the broth, stir in the butter, and pour it over the mussels.  Sprinkle with some chopped parsley and freshly ground pepper.

Serve with French fries on the side - or some other type of potatoes. Provide a large side bowl for the empty shells and a soup spoon for the delicious broth.  And some good hot French bread for dunking.
Serves 6.

Goes perfectly with a dry Grave or a Muscadet, but my personal favorite is a Pouilly-Fumé.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Out and About: The Cité Universitaire

This week-end is the Journées du Patrimoine - Heritage Days.  France has many buildings that are not open to the public, or where some parts are off-limits.  Today a lot of them are going to be open to anyone with patience.
Maison Internationale, entrance
     The Palais de l’Elysée for instance - the residence and offices of the President of France - as well as the Sénat and the Assemblée Nationale - the two houses of France’s government.  You could choose to visit some of the ornate, centuries-old residences of various foreign ambassadors, such as that of the Ambassador of Poland.  Or stroll through the Banque de France... but not its huge safe deep underground where the country’s gold bullion is hidden.  Or go pet the horses of the President’s honor guard, the Garde Républicaine, at their stables near the river.
Foundation of the United States, on left
     But all of those will involve waiting in long lines, and as I haven’t found a victim to stand in line with me, that could prove very boring.
     So I decide to go see something I could have gone to see any time since first arriving in Paris in 1968:  the Cité Universitaire.

What is the Cité Universitaire?  It’s the residential campus of the various Universités de Paris, which were all one university until the Student Riots of 1968.  It grew out of the horror of World War I, “to promote peaceful understanding between students, researchers and artists of different nations”.  And it was also needed to counter the housing crisis of those post-war years.
     The first buildings opened in 1925, on land that lay beyond the avenue circling Paris on the south, where the city’s fortifications had stood.  It groups 6,000 students in 40 different “houses”, many of which were intended initially for a given country.  Japan, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Greece Argentina, Holland, Switzerland and the United States all had their own as of the early years.  Iran built its structure in 1969, under the Shah, on the last lot remaining.
     In the center, at the entrance, is the Maison Internationale, built largely with funds provided by John Rockefeller Jr.
     Recently Paris has granted additional land to the Cité and three new national buildings will go up, the first promised to South Korea. Plus a very modern unit for the Ile de France, the region including Paris, already under construction using green technology.
Maison Internationale and lawn

I head off downhill to the Métro and then transfer to the fast cross-town B-line to the south border of Paris.  It only takes half an hour.  The Cité is right across the boulevard from the Métro.  All you have to do is run the gauntlet of the new modern tramway line that now circles most of Paris on its municipal border.  The tramway also separates the Cité from the Parc Montsouris, a municipal park with 38 acres of English landscape gardens, lawns, a small lake and miles of paths.  Perfect for a student who is easily distracted.
Japanese house
     The weather is good and the sun shining, which hasn’t been the case too much recently. In front of the Maison Internationale are carefully clipped box hedges in classic French style.  Inside, people mill about, some of them enjoying their 4 o’clock tea in the café, others chatting in groups on the terrace that gives out onto a lawn that would make any American college proud.  To the left and right of the terrace, tree-shaded walks lead to the different “dormitories”, each with a unique look although many are of the typical Ivy League brick style.

House of Mexico

   I choose the left and go down the steps, past families enjoying a bit of greenery inside the city.  (Definitely not students, these people.)  To my right is the House of Mexico, complete with depictions of Aztecs across its facade; there’s even a Mayan-style circular stone calendar in the courtyard (real or a copy?) - I can see it through the windows but the doors open only with a magnetic-strip pass key (as will be the case everywhere except the House of Norway, which is setting up for some sort of concert or presentation). Across from Mexico is the Foundation of the United States, one of the Ivy League look-alikes; no wall here to keep the border between the two “safe”!  Along this “street” are the Brits, the Japanese, the Spaniards, Italians, Swiss, then the Swedes, Danes (smaller country, smaller size) and Norwegians, all together in a kind of mini-Scandinavia.  Thrown in there for good ethnic measure are Morocco, India and Brazil... and that rounds out the left end of the campus.
     Running the entire length of the campus (a good three city blocks) is either lawns - where people who are or are not students enjoy the grass, picnic, play badminton or even dodgeball - or sports facilities.  From east to west, there’s a track for athletics, tennis courts, basketball courts, soccer goals and a full-sized playing field.  Anything a student wanting to blow off steam could ever want.
     Beyond them are some other dormitories - those of Lebanon, Cambodia and Germany as well as one for engineers.  Here also the modernistic new building with green technology is going up.  And there’s still some room left for other buildings to come... but not many.
      Working my way back to the Maison Internationale, I walk past the building that groups Southeast Asia, one just for Holland, one for Greece, another built for Cuba, and yet another for all the provinces of France. There’s one for Tunisia and one whose carvings are definitely sub-Saharan African, probably for France’s ex-colonies.  Closer still to my central starting point is the House of Canada and another building for Argentina, in addition to a complex of semi-detached Oxford-cum-Cambridge buildings that were part of the original campus:  the Fondation Deutsch de la Meurthe, the very first building on the campus built with private funding from the family who would later become Shell Oil.

Fondation Deutsch de la Meurthe

In these residences, rooms for mere students run 400-550 € per month ($450-615) but are only 11-18 m2 large  (118-194 sq ft).  “Each room offers access to a washbasin, a shower, toilets and a kitchen, within the room or on the same floor.”  Which means you may have to go down the hall to hose down, which is what I had to do in Stockwell Hall at the University of Michigan - it made for interesting conversations and budding friendships while brushing one’s teeth.  Post-doctoral researchers and senior teacher/researchers have priority for studio apartments, all of which have a kitchenette.  They’re much larger (ha!):  18-25 m2 (194-270 sq ft) for studio apartments for singles and 25-35 m2 (270-380 sq ft) for couples.  “Sometimes researchers are accommodated in rooms, but normally students have priority for this type of accommodation” (the lucky dogs!).
     I would have liked to see a room or two, but I can see how students wouldn’t appreciate people poking their noses through the doorway and asking stupid questions.  So I’ll never know what their home-away-from-home actually looks like.

   It appears that you have to be working on a masters degree to apply for housing here.  If you’re an undergrad, you’re on your own. And some of the buildings take people from any country.  The ones that stick to their own citizens are Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Sweden and the United States.  I’m not really sure why, and there’s no one to ask today.
     Besides, it’s almost 6 o’clock.  Time to head home.

As I get off the Métro back at my Montmartre starting point, I notice a familiar-looking pink headband on a little girl.  She and her mother were on the same Métro as me on my way out three hours ago.  We find we both live in the same neighborhood.
     What are the chances in a city of two and a quarter million people?!

House of Greece

Cité Universitaire
17 Boulevard Jourdan
Paris 14è
Métro:  RER B - Cité Universitaire