Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday morning

Easy like Sunday morning.
     A lyric from a song that doesn’t apply here.  Except that it is Sunday morning, and it’s an easy one because there’s no To-Do List.
     Except food shopping.  Because it’s France and tomorrow’s Monday and that means shops are closed to offer shopkeepers a delayed week-end.

My plan, such as it was, was to head out early, to beat the lines.  But when I wake up and open the shutters, it’s seriously raining.
     So I switch plans, such as it is, and make myself a leisurely cup of tea and read a bit... but not in the garden.  Around 10, the rain stops although the sky is still resolutely clouded over.  I put on a jacket, grab my shopping bag, my camera and my coin purse and I’m off downhill to the Purveyors of Good Things to Eat and Drink.
     I decide to take the High Road, the opposite direction from the square, and come out the far end of my street onto the usual tourists taking pictures of Le Radet, one of Montmartre’s two remaining windmills.  With a “pardon” and an “excuse me” and an “entschuldigen”, I weave my way through the throngs.  It’s just this one spot with its knot of sightseers that’s a problem.  Past that is the green-and white remake of the Moulin de la Galette painted by Renoir which no one seems to want to photograph... and then the Galette windmill itself, the second one remaining.
     This one, Le Blute-fin (they all had names), was refurbished recently by French film director Claude Lelouch, in exchange for permission to build an apartment underneath its base.  His semi-circular bay windows are rarely even visible from the street, but from his windows he has a helluva view out over Paris, including the gilt of the Invalides dome in the distance, with today’s backdrop of clouds.  My zoom makes it look within arm’s reach, but it’s actually half of Paris away, 5 kilometers (3 miles) to be exact.

My needs are few:  boudin from the Auvergne lady, chicken from Jacky Gaudin’s butcher shop, a bottle of Chinon from Manu’s Caves des Abbesses and a red bell pepper from Au Verger des Abbesses.  In fact I don’t even need to make a list.
     First is the Auvergne shop.  I’ve been meaning to buy some of her blood sausage since last week-end, but then Life Happened, as John Lennon would say.  I end up buying not only the boudin, but also a slice of pâté aux morilles (those are morels, which I love), a tiny one-portion raw goat’s milk cheese from Rocamadour, and a box of those luscious, thin, crisp butter cookies from Salers that are called pavés (paving stones).  So now I have a full four-course meal.
    Next it’s back up the Rue Lepic to the butcher on Rue des Abbesses.  Somehow I resist all the other things that he offers for sale and stick to my original two chicken legs.  Jacky asks me if I want them cut in half (thigh + drumstick), which is very professional and considerate of him.  I hadn’t thought of that, but I agree and thank him.  When I go to pay, the woman behind the counter asks me if I’m the chicken thighs.  I smile and say, “Yes, I danced ballet when I was young.”  She looks perplexed for a moment and then breaks out in a huge smile, realizing the other possible interpretation of her question.
    As I leave the butcher shop, I hear a drum roll.  It’s a sound I’ve known for ages:  the P’tits Poulbots de Montmartre.
     (An aside here: In the early 1900's, Montmartre was a slum, with poor health conditions, lots of orphans, and many artists.  One of the artists started sketching the orphans.  His name was Francisque Poulbot and he became rich and famous for those sketches of les enfants de la rue, the children of the streets.  In return, he opened a dispensary for them right down on Rue Lepic.  The drum corps came later, as a free activity for kids too poor to afford extra-curricular activities or go on holiday.  And it’s still going strong.)
     I get out my camera - this is why I always have it handy. Suddenly runners start streaming by.  It turns out to be a 10-km race through Montmartre’s streets to help fund the P’tits Poulbots, which is why their drum corps is present.  There are at least 100 runners taking part, and the Poulbot drum corps strikes up a welcome for them as they pass on every lap.  A race in Montmartre is a real challenge, because level surfaces are few and far between.  The Rue des Abbesses is one, and the joggers  revel in it after that last grueling stretch up the steep Rue Lepic.  I’m used to the hills, but that’s at walking speed, and with numerous stops in various shops.  This is way more serious.  Except for the clown who amuses both the runners and the children looking on, a break from the boredom of Sunday shopping with mom or dad.
     A quick stop into the wine shop for a bottle of chinon, and then across the street to the green grocer, dodging the jogging stragglers (or straggling joggers).  There, my “one bell pepper” resolution goes to pieces and I end up with two (one red and one orange for a Basque chicken dish tomorrow), plus some neatly manicured green beans and a serving or two of those delectably sweet, tiny early potatoes from the island of Noirmoutier.  I get handed a free bouquet of parsley as well, complete with a big smile.  When I ask Fathi why he’s not out there running in the race, he replies that he only runs after women.
     Back up the equally steep Rue Ravignan with a stop into the bakery for half a baguette to go with my goat cheese, and a bit left over for breakfast tomorrow... then I’m home, through my gate and across my garden.  Without any rain, but probably only because I took my umbrella with me.
     It’s time to start lunch.  First boil the potatoes.  That gives me time to do last night(s dishes.  With time left over to peel and cut up some Canada apples to make applesauce for the boudin aux deux pommes - the two apples (deux pommes) in question being apples from the trees and apples from the earth.  They cook down easily and I add the boudin to the pan.  It browns itself while I cut up the cooked potatoes, add milk and butter and smoosh them into mashed potatoes.  It’s all perfectly timed. Now to eat it.
     And then a nap.  The museum will have to wait until tomorrow.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Petits-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!

(P.S.  Sorry I didn't put up a recipe for November.  It's been a busy few months.)

  • 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 (optional)
  • 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.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Out & About - Exhibits - Picasso / Giacometti

Left, Picasso's Pregnant Woman (1959); right, Giacometti's Tall Woman (1958)

Bruno (Picasso, 1920)
Picasso?  Most of it, not so much.  But Giacometti?  Yes, please.
     So when I heard the Picasso Museum in Paris was having a show with Giacometti in it, I decided to go back there. Besides, they’ve remodeled since the ouster of the old curator... or so I’m told.

Ottilia (Giacometti, 1925)
Evidently Picasso and Giacometti had a long friendship, both before and after World War II.  (During the war, Giacometti returned to his native Switzerland whereas Picasso stayed in Paris, even though his art was banned by the Nazis and he himself was often hounded by the Gestapo.) Although twenty years older, and already a known celebrity compared to Giacometti’s beginner status, Picasso recognized the young Swiss artist’s talent and they became fast friends, not only on an artistic level but on a human one as well.
     The artwork - over 200 pieces in all* - starts with early paintings and sculptures by both.  The first room includes Picasso’s “The Barefoot Girl” along with Giacometti’s “Still Life with Apples”, both painted when the artists were just 14 years old.  Their talent was already obvious.
Braque on his deathbed (Giacometti, 1963) 
     Some of the other rooms are organized by theme.  One shows both artists’ fascination with death. Another demonstrates the influence non-Western cultures, especially indigenous art, had on both of them.  As one panel explains, “Picasso’s totems and Giacometti’s steles display the same stylised forms and evoke the same magical quality as works from the Cyclades, Oriental antiquities and sculptures from Africa and Oceania.”
Goat, Picasso 1950
The dog, Giacometti 1951
     A third room, mostly sculptures, is devoted to representations of animals.  There’s a comic goat that Giacometti sculpted in 1950, as well as his representation of his friend Pablo’s elegant afghan hound, which looks fluidly emaciated, its fur rendered recognizably by the artist’s incision-like style.
     The final section focuses on their Muses:  Annette for Giacometti and mainly Dora Maar for Picasso.

     Throughout the exhibit, there were people sketching, including an entire art class.

In addition to the artworks, two films are also on the menu.  On the upstairs level, which you reach by a majestic fer forgé and stone staircase, a small room - divided in half by a white wall - projects two films back-to-back.  
     Facing the window is the 1955 documentary “Le Mystère Picasso” by Henri-George Clouzot in which Picasso sketches himself.  It’s fascinating to watch an invisible hand draw one single line that twists and turns until a whole scene emerges, a scene an invisible brush then fills in with shades of black. The mastery of seemingly seeing what is hidden within the blank canvas is amazing.  Picasso’s hand never hesitates.
     On the other side of the partition you can see another documentary, “Alberto Giacometti” by Ernst Scheidegger... or rather a series of short snippets that Scheidegger filmed of his friend between 1961 and 1965. One has him sculpting a face that becomes more and more furrowed with every incision; another shows him sketching Stravinsky.

Woman sitting (Giacometti, 1958)
You’ll have no trouble understanding the exhibit.  As usual in Parisian art shows, where the public is international, the explanatory panels are multilingual:  French, English and Spanish.  And an audioguide is available in several languages.

The museum itself is worth the trip.  It’s housed in the Hôtel Salé, one of the hôtels particuliers  - or private mansions - built in the 17th century in what had been a swamp (thus the name, the Marais).
     The whole neighborhood is filled with such mansions.  Over the centuries, these majestic houses owned by nobles were broken up into apartments, first by floor and then even more, until they were often just an amalgam of rented rooms.  The area slipped down the social ladder, eventually becoming the Jewish ghetto.  And then came World War II.  The Jews were sent off to camps, most never to return, and the apartments were bought up by good French stock (and yes, that’s irony, because often they were awarded to the people who denounced those Jews).
Bust of Annette (Giacometti, 1964)
     When I moved to France in 1968, I attended part of the Sorbonne housed in more modern facilities amidst all the leprous old buildings in this neighborhood.  By the late Seventies, forward-looking people were buying up the small rabbit-hutch studios and sewing them together to make larger apartments for their growing families. Breaking down the partitions, they discovered the original stone walls beneath, and under the fake ceilings huge chestnut beams, some of them still with the stigmata of their old painted decoration.
     Other apartments became the property of the City of Paris, often to pay off back taxes. The Hôtel Salé was confiscated in 1962 by the City, the owner and tenants expropriated, to create a Museum of Fashion (which you can now find at the Palais Galliera across town).
     Then in 1974, as per the artist’s wishes, Picasso’s heirs donated all these works of his - over 5,000 of them - and the Musée Picasso was born.

* The Giacometti works are on loan from the Fondation Giacometti.

Musée Picasso

4 rue de Thorigny; Paris 3è

Metro:  Filles du Calvaire or Saint-Paul

Open 10:30- 6.  Closed Mondays.

To Feb. 15, 2016

12.50€ & 11€

Monday, October 24, 2016

Fifty Years of the Gamma Photo Agency

I really like photography.  Good photography.  And few agencies had better photos on a more regular basis than Gamma.
     But now it’s gone.

Abu Dhabi - Jack Burlot - 1973
Gamma was a French photo agency.  It was founded in 1966 by famous photographer Raymond Depardon, who’s perhaps even more famous for his later films.  Depardon had partners:  Hubert Henrotte (who later went on to start his own agency, Sygma.), Hugues Vassal (famous for his photos of Piaf and the Shah of Iran), and Léonard de Raemy (photographer to the stars).  They were joined shortly thereafter by Gilles Caron, illustrious for his coverage of the Six-Day War, the Biafran War, and France’s very own student/worker riots in May-June 1968.  (Caron disappeared in the Khmer-held territory of Cambodia in 1970; he was only 30 years old.)
Vietnam - Jean-Claude Labbé - 1976
     Others whose names you may or may not have heard are Françoise Demulder, Chas Gerretsen, William Karel, Catherine Leroy, François Lochon, Georges Merillon and Emanuele Scorcelletti. The agency soon grew its own crop of famous names:  Abbas, Jean Gaumy, Sebastião Salgado, David Burnett and Gianni Giansanti.  Eventually it represented more than 6,000 photographers in all.
     The agency’s initial aims were to improve the working conditions of photojournalists and implement equitable treatment of all its photographers.  Photo by photo, Gamma became the agency, whether for images of the glitterati or the warfront.

Kabul - Eric Bouvet - 2001

But as with all human undertakings, where egos are involved, conflict and jealousy soon erupted.  In May of 1973, a strike broke out and ultimately most of the photographers followed Henrotte to Sygma.  In 1980, Depardon made a film, “Reporters”, in which he followed several of Gamma’s photographers as they went about chasing images.  And then he left for the rival agency, Magnum.
     As the 20th century drew to a close, Gamma was losing money, perhaps because of its refusal to “go digital”.  In 1999, it was bought up by a division of Hachette Filipacchi Médias and kept functioning.  When rumors circulated that the agency was in financial trouble in March of 2007, the agency changed owners and names several times.  It finally filed for Chapter 11 protection in mid-2009, after a loss of three million euros.
     In April of 2010, it was sold for a mere 100,000 euros to the Eyedea Group, headed by... François Lochon, one of Gamma’s early photographers.  The Group included the Rapho Agency, a legend in the realm of images. Continuing as Gamma-Rapho, it also handled the works of photographers Édouard Boubat, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Jean-Louis Swiners, and Sabine Weiss, as well as inheriting the archives of  the Keystone, Explorer, Hoa Qui and Stills agencies.

Corrida, Nîmes - Erik Sampers - 1991

So Gamma, per se, is gone, but its stock of over 500,000 photos still exists. Hard to track down, and all too-brief (Oct. 6-23 only), this exhibit included fifty of them selected from the entire range of its spheres of interest: “beautiful people”, everyday life, wars, humanitarian crises... anything that was news and caught the eye.  (A list of the photographers is given below.)
     All fifty are perfectly framed works of art that tell a story. All fifty were sold on the final Sunday, with the proceeds to benefit Reporters Without Borders (

A 336-page book weighing in at a hearty 2.6 kg (5.7 pounds!) is also available at a mere 59€.  (I hear it’s available via Amazon, although I prefer spending my money in brick-and-mortar stores.)

The exhibit’s photographers:  Jean-Louis Atlan, Patrick Aventurier, Hélène Bamberger, Jean-Pierre Bonnotte, Giancarlo Botti, Eric Bouvet, Henri Bureau, Jack Burlot, David Burnett, Gilles Caron, Patrick Chapuis, Georges De Keerle, Françoise Demulder, Raymond Depardon, Marc Deville, Alexis Duclos, Michel Folco, Jean-Claude Francolon, Raphaël Gaillarde, Yves Gellie, Gianni Giansanti, Chip Hires, Barry Iverson, David Kennerly, Peter Knapp, Kaku Kurita, Jean-Claude Labbé, Jean-Pierre Laffont, Bertrand Laforêt, Jean-Jacques Lapeyronnie, Michel Laurent, François Lochon, Michel Maïofiss, Pascal Maitre, Yves Manciet, Olivier Martel, Georges Mérillon, Pierre Perrin, Jean-Pierre Rey, Sebastiao Salgado, Erik Sampers, Eric Sander, Christian Simonpietri, Laurent Sola, Gilbert Uzan, Laurent Van Der Stockt, Diana Walker, and the unknown photographer of “Trooping the Colour”.

Trooping the Colour - unknown - 1970

Friday, October 21, 2016

Out & About - Exhibits: Hergé

In Paris, there’s always an art exhibit to see, given that the French capital has about 130 museums.  This October, one of them spotlights Belgian cartoonist Hergé.  I went to see it today.  And I hope my children will continue to speak to me, seeing as they feel his drawings are racist.
     It’s true that Herge’s very first Tintin book - Tintin au Congo - depicts the natives of the then-Belgian Congo with thick red lips and speaking pidgin English. Well, pidgin French actually.  I could explain to them that it was 1931 and things were different then, but they wouldn’t buy it.  I could say Hergé hadn’t been to Africa and only got his information from the Royal Museum for Central Africa* in Tervuren, just outside Brussels in his native Belgium, and that he was young and inexperienced.  But that wouldn’t help either.
     Still, I went to the exhibit because Hergé and Tintin are a huge part of the pop culture of 20th century French-speaking Europe, and probably the chief source of the enormous success of today’s comic book business - or graphic novel, as the publishing business prefers to call it nowadays, so that people will take it seriously as a genre.

Hergé’s actual name is Georges Remi, the inverted initials of which (RG) are pronounced air-zhay, or Hergé.  He was born in 1907 in Etterbeek, Belgium, just outside of Brussels, into a middle-class family.  His whole life was spent at the drawing board, most of the time turning out comic strips and albums, but sometimes publicity.
     He was already drawing comic strips when Germany took over Belgium, along with most of Europe.  When the magazines his strip appeared in were shut down by the Nazis, he had to find others in order to make a living.  Unfortunately for him, all the newspapers and magazines authorized by the occupying forces were deemed suspicious after Belgium was freed.  And so, in 1944, Hergé was arrested several times and interrogated, then released, but only officially cleared of collusion with the enemy in May of 1946.
     By then, his most famous creation - Tintin - had been around for almost twenty years.  The first of the Tintin albums - Tintin au pays des Soviets (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets) - came out at the start of 1929.  Although the young reporter is always off on an adventure somewhere around the globe - Switzerland, England, America, the Congo, Peru, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Nepal, Tibet, China - we never see him actually write anything.  His adventures are the story.
     In addition to all these countries, Hergé also stranded his boy reporterin the Sahara (like the pilot in Le Petit Prince) and out on the Atlantic Ocean.  But inspired by the novel of Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon) and the silent movie of Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon), Hergé’s love of the future had him land Tintin on the Moon in 1950, long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot there in 1969.
     Other characters who accompany Tintin in his adventures are his trusty white fox terrier Snowy (Milou) and the irascible Captain Haddock, whose cursing (Mille milliards de mille sabords! or Tonnerre de Brest!) every young French and Belgian child can quote without getting their mouth washed out with soap.  Haddock (Hergé’s personal favorite character) lives in a country home which Hergé closely borrowed from Cheverny, one of the famous châteaux of the Loire Valley.  (One room of the exhibit has a large model of the Captain’s home and behind it, for comparison, a photo of Cheverny that takes up an entire wall.)

     There’s also the wildly inventive but totally scatterbrained and mostly deaf Professor Calculus (Professeur Tournesol) and two bumbling policemen - Thomson and Thompson (Dupont and Dupond) - who echo what each other says with a “To be precise...“ (Je dirais même plus...) and differ only slightly in their respective mustaches.   From time to time, there’s also the opera diva Bianca Castafiore, who terrifies Captain Haddock and sings horribly.
The exhibit includes hundreds, maybe thousands, of drawings of all these characters, plus some models of props from the series - a space module, a racing car, a planetarium...  It’s a very intense resume of an entire career, and perhaps not for everyone.  But lovers of this indisputably talented artist will find a wealth of information.  And the informational panels are in French, English and Spanish.
     And there were people of all ages, from children to very old timers probably reminiscing about their lost youth.

Hergé died of leukemia in 1983, leaving Tintin an orphan and his readers bereft.  Luckily for the European comic book world, he left behind a whole family of spiritual sons and daughters to fill the void:  Goscinny and Uderzo with the Astérix series, Morris with his iconic cowboy Lucky Luke, Claire Brétecher with her many frustrated females (including Cellulite), Franquin with his bumbling-but-well-meaning Gaston Lagaffe, Greg and the irrepressible Achille Talon...  not to mention the more realistic graphic novels à la Steve Canyon such as Lieutenant Blueberry, Buck Danny or Lady S.
     Today the comic book genre is still alive and well, not only in Europe but around the world.  And some of that we owe to Hergé.


Grand Palais
3 avenue du Général Eisenhower; 8è
Métro:  Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau

Sept. 28, 2016 - Jan. 15, 2017
10-8 / Closed Tuesdays / Wednesdays open until 10

12-13 € & 9 € (free under 13 years of age)


* For my blog on this museum, see

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Out & About - Magical antique automatons

If we're lucky, when we grow up, we manage to not let go of the ability to be amazed.  And when we discover something fascinating, we just stand and marvel.
     Which is why when a Paris friend told me about an exhibit of automatons, those marvelous tiny machines that come to life, move their eyes and limbs, and sometimes even more, I had to go.

This is not an exhibit in the strictest sense of the word.  Galerie Kugel deals in antiques, and has for five generations.  (Before that they were clockmakers in Germany, which ties in neatly with these automaton clocks.)  In 2004, the Galerie relocated to the building on the Seine River at 25 quai Anatole France, a mansion constructed in 1840 for the Director of the Mint.  The exhibit space takes up three levels:  the ground floor and two more.  The automatons are on the first level.
     In talking with one of the many young people who patrol the exhibition rooms, I learn how far Kugel goes to sell its antiques.  For instance, when I guess that the building dates from the 18th century, based on the wood panels on the walls, the young man explains that the panels have been mounted on the walls underneath and are for sale. He then adds that one wall of that room has been pushed back somehow to accommodate the Persian rug on the parquet floor.  The chandelier overhead is also not “d’origine” in this room - the real original one has been removed for the time of the show - and it's for sale.  Everything in the room is for sale.  What you are seeing is not someone’s study or living room or boudoir. It is, in fact, a theater set, complete with all the props, all of which could be yours for the asking... at the asking price.  All smoke and mirrors.  Lots of mirrors.

But back to the automatons.  Over 30 of them - the largest collection ever assembled - are artistically scattered throughout the room. Exquisitely lighted, they all glitter.  And only some of them are under protective glass.
     None are wound up so you won’t see them move, and signs ask you not to touch them.  But some have little screens on their pedestal running a video of the object in movement.  There’s also a large screen at the far end of the room with a video of all of them doing what talented hands created them to do.  In addition to telling time.
     Almost all of the creatures have eyes that look to one side and then the other, counting off the seconds.  Monkey and lion tails swish back and forth.  Dogs and other animals open and close their jaws.  “Though animals dominate the automaton kingdom, a few humans inhabit it as well, and one may encounter a Turkish horseman swinging his sword, and lion and bear tamers pulling on leashes.”  The fat king - or perhaps Gargantua? - lifts his glass again and again.  The mahout raises his trident and then lowers it to strike the hours.  Men and animals swirl around a tower.  A woman holding a glass of... something floats across the table on invisible wheels.
    Although the mechanics are amazing, even more amazing is the craftsmanship that went into all the engraving.  How many eyes were ruined incising all the tiny features?  The frown lines.  The embroidery on clothing.  The tweed fabric of the pirate’s trousers.  The fur of the camel and curly locks of the sheep’s wool.  Or simply the gilded backgrounds.
     Not to mention that all have working clocks, with all the gears required hidden from view within these golden masterpieces.
     How many hours went into the making of just one of the simple automatons, not to mention the larger, more complex chef d’oeuvres?
     Most of them were made in the 17th century in Augsburg in southern Germany, one of the leading goldsmith centers of its time.  Some were gifts that rich nobles offered to each other... and to themselves.   Still others were diplomatic presents.  "From the middle of the 16th century onward, automaton clocks were regularly sent to the Sultan in Istanbul, as part of the yearly tribute paid by the Empire in order to preserve peace. In the 17th century, Jesuit priests presented automaton clocks - along with other works of art and scientific curiosities - to the Chinese Emperor, hoping these gifts would help spread Christian ideas throughout Asia.”

You can also tour the other rooms, filled to the brim with antiques, some the very finest you could find anywhere.  I’m not sure what kind of décor they would fit in, but if only for the mastery of the craftsmen, it’s well worth your time to take a look.
     But even if you go only for the automatons, you won’t regret it.  As the gallery says, “Nearly 400 years after their creation, the animals of this mechanical bestiary continue to fill us with awe and wonder.“

Galerie J. Kugel
25 quai Anatole France; Paris 7è
Métro:  Assemblée Nationale or Solférino

September 9 - November 5, 2016

Free exhibition, Monday to Saturday: from 10.30 am to 7 pm

P.S.  The Musée d’Orsay is just a block away, if you’re still hungry for more beauty.

P.P.S.  If you enjoy automatons, there’s a museum of nothing but that in Lyon, France - an hour’s train ride south of Paris.  I covered it here in Sandy's France in 2011.  Here’s the link:

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Soupe de potiron auvergnate

Anjony, Auvergne - lauze roofs

Once again it’s the season of Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving.  And that means a recipe for something with pumpkin.
  In America, “pumpkin...” is almost always followed by “...pie”.  But in France it’s not so much a sweet as a savory, used mainly for soups, and more recently in purée form as a side dish for roasted meats (as are carrots, turnips and celeriac).  The ones you want to use for baking or cooking are smaller and sweeter than jack-o’lantern pumpkins, and are called pie pumpkins, or sugar pumpkins, or sugar pie pumpkins.
  This recipe comes from Auvergne, in the Massif Central where volcanoes - now extinct - once towered above the primal waters that covered most of the Earth.  It is a handsome land in the summer, covered with vegetation made lush by the ancient lava flows, a land where russet cows graze freely.  But in winter, with temperatures often the lowest in all of France, it becomes a hard place to scratch out a living, and yet remains strikingly beautiful with its robust houses of dark basalt walls and lauze stone roofs standing out against the snow.  It is traditionally a poor region, where people survived on lentils, cabbage, chestnuts and pumpkin.  Chef Roland Durand grew up on a farm in the Auvergne, one of seven children, and learned to cook with his mother.  Which may be why he loves these simple recipes, the recettes de terroir.
  So here’s his seasonal soup for that pumpkin you didn’t use for a jack-o’lantern.  It’s more a meal than a soup, thanks to its bread and melted cheese, the Auvergne version of the internationally-known French onion soup.  Perfect for chilly evenings, it’s guaranteed to be filling.  And served in its shell, it’s sure to be a conversation stopper.

  • 1 pie pumpkin, about the size of a basketball
  • 4-6 slices of Cantal cheese
  • 4-6 slices of Poilane bread 
  • 2/3 to 1 qt of milk, cream or half-and-half
  • freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Cut off the top of the pumpkin, saving the cap to use as a lid.  Scrape out the seeds and coarse fibers.
- Place the pumpkin in a rimmed baking dish and fill the inside with alternating layers of cheese and  bread.  Pour the milk/cream over the bread and cheese, filling the pumpkin to the top.  Add freshly ground pepper to taste.  (Cantal cheese is naturally very salty.)  Replace the cap on the pumpkin.
- Bake for 60 minutes.
- Serve by cutting the “bread/cheese melt” into sections and pouring the liquid over it.
Feeds four.

This is an easy recipe to make in France.  In the United States, you can replace the Cantal cheese with a very mild Cheddar.  The Poilane bread can be replaced with any sturdy whole-wheat bread, provided it’s dry enough; or else you can leave the bread out overnight so it dries a bit.  And yes, this is a perfect recycling dish for bread that’s going stale (but not moldy!).

Monday, July 11, 2016

Out and About: Exhibits: Artists in Montmartre, from Steinlen to Satie

Sometimes, when you’ve lived in a place long enough, you think you know it.
     And then you find out you don’t.
     I’ve lived in Montmartre since 1970 - with a short interlude - and I know it well.  I’ve visited the Musée de Montmartre many, many times.  But it was a nice afternoon, with nothing else to do, so I decided to walk over (well, up and over and back down; it’s a steep hill) to see the current temporary exhibit: Artists in Montmartre: from Steinlen to Satie.  And to discover Suzanne Valadon’s artist studio.
Clos Montmartre
The museum used to be small.  It had a tiny shop on Rue Cortot where you bought your tickets.  Later they added a bookshop across the flagstone path leading to the house.  And that was all there was. Just a small three-story house that used to be the country home - when the Butte Montmartre was far outside Paris - of famous actor Rosimonde, successor to Molière.  It was a museum that I could navigate with my eyes blindfolded.
     (Anecdote:  Rosimonde died in the wings of the theater after starring in Le Malade Imaginaire, just as Molière had before him.  The name of that play means “the hypochondriac”, which is ironic to the utmost.  The year was 1686.  It’s an old house.)
     All that has changed.  You still buy your tickets at the same place, but it’s bigger and sells books and cards and magnets, as do all Paris museums.  And now you enter the museum from the garden level, around the back of the house.
     As the garden is open to the public, I decided to start there, exploring the many levels that spill down to where the Clos Montmartre starts - the last vineyard remaining within Paris proper. The garden is very much as it must have been in Rosimonde’s day, which is kind of exciting to a history geek like me, in and of itself.  But on the east side of the garden I discovered  a gate, and that gate leads to the St. Vincent Garden, or it would if you could open it.  More about that in another blog.  Suffice to say that for almost half a century this garden remained closed to the world since 1940.  Even now it’s locked tight except for two half-days a week... or for school science trips.  There are things living and growing in there that are found nowhere else in Paris any more.  (It’s presumed that the newts that appeared spontaneously in the new Jardin Renoir ornamental pond migrated from there.)

Inside the museum, the lower level of Rosimonde’s home is still for exhibits.  There are works by known artists and also a few new names.  One of the works by Alfred Renaudin shows Paris in 1899, as viewed from where the steps now lead up to the Sacré-Coeur.  (I have a copy of it in my home because for 27 years I lived right across from this hill and my windows opened out onto it.)  There’s also some artwork from the Shadow Theater of the famous Chat Noir cabaret, as well as old photos of Montmartre before the developers got their hands on it.
     On the middle level is more art, and an actual bar that escaped from the Nazi requisitions, now tended by a portrait of Suzanne Valadon. The front of the bar is veined wood, the top is the quintessential zinc, and it comes equipped with a water dispenser for your anisette or absinthe, the Green Fairy that was the downfall of many an artist or poet.  Other rooms house a collection of porcelain and sheet music, along with a plaster cast of Montmartre from 1955.

Jardin Renoir
So much for the old building, the Museum as it was for decades.  Now on to the “new” building.  To reach it, you exit where you used to enter Rosimonde’s house and cross a lawn with tables and chairs scattered around that ornamental pond with the migrated newts from an earlier era. You can sit and talk, or order coffee, tea, pastry, ice cream (in season) or light snacks from the Café Renoir.  (And yes, Renoir did have a studio here for a while.)
     This other building is the Hôtel Demarne (which doesn’t mean a hotel, but rather a private home).  The house went with the now-locked gardens and stood vacant for decades, once it - and the garden - were turned over to the City of Paris in payment of past-due property taxes.  For a while it was used occasionally for meetings and private dinners, but now it has become part and parcel of the Museum. Which is wonderful because here is where Suzanne Valadon lived with her young lover-husband and her illustrious but fatally flawed artist-son Maurice Utrillo.
     There is plenty of floor space for temporary exhibits; this one is Artists in Montmartre: 1870-1910.  But what fascinated me was the reconstituted apartments where Valadon lived, and especially her studio, filled with light (with a northern exposure, which was de rigeur).  The artifacts gathered here, whether hers or not, make it seem as if she just stepped out to the Rue St. Rustique one street over to buy some more colors or canvases.  (That shop is still there, the last art supplies shop on the Butte, but for how long?)

Montmartre would not be Montmartre without its artistic heritage. The fact that the City of Paris has handed this property over to the Musée de Montmartre, and that the museum has worked for years to preserve part of Montmartre’s heritage is a wonderful thing.
     As the nearby Place du Tertre becomes increasingly handed over to the cafés, squeezing out the artists who once took up the entire square, it’s important that the Butte’s history as a place where artists lived and created be preserved.  The Musée de Montmartre has truly done that.

Les Impressionistes à Montmartre,
de Steinlen à Satie (1870-1910)

Musée de Montmartre
12 rue Cortot; 18è
Métro:  Lamarck-Caulaincourt

Until Sept 25, 2016 (Valloton studio all year)
Daily 10-7 / Sat & Mon open until 9

9.50 & 5;50-7.50 € (free under 10 years of age)