Saturday, February 27, 2016

Out & About: Maison de Balzac

During all those decades I lived in Paris full-time, there were many places I never got to.  Why?  Because I was trying to hold heaven-and-earth together as a freelance translator/interpreter with two children to clothe, feed and educate.  Work came in, left, right and center, and when you’re working freelance you can never say no because you never know when the next job will come.  So spare time wasn’t really something I had a lot of. And when I did have some, there was usually a tennis tournament to applaud my son in or a gym competition to attend, watching my daughter hurtle herself in potentially neck-breaking feats of gymnastic agility that exceed my understanding.  Or there was food to buy, meals to cook, toilets to scour and...  Well, you get the idea.  Life.
     So now I’m catching up.  And one thing I needed to catch up with was to go see Balzac’s house.

I’d seen Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges years ago.  It was chock-a-block with the famous author’s furniture and mementos. But Balzac isn’t Hugo.  He was never France’s national hero, and he was never financially secure.
     As a matter of fact, what the Paris guidebooks call Balzac’s home was actually just an apartment that he rented in this modest house on a hillside in the Passy neighborhood, which was then still outside of Paris.  He lived here in five small, plain rooms from 1840 to 1847.  It’s the only one of his eleven Parisian residences that still exists.  Balzac chose this modest place to hide from his many creditors, even living under a false name:  Monsieur de Breugnol. His friends had to use a password to be allowed in, a password his creditors obviously weren’t given.  And if any of them did manage to sneak in, Balzac would scamper down the stairs and out the back door of the floor below.
     Of Balzac’s furniture, all that is left is his writing desk and chair.  The rest was sold off after his death, to pay those creditors. And that leaves the rooms looking a bit barren.  The desk and chair have been placed back in the tiny room where he basically wrote many of his best novels and much of his epic work, La Comédie Humaine - The Human Comedy.  In another room, there’s a huge document showing the convoluted “family tree” of its characters and how they’re inter-related. There are also pages of his manuscripts, with his corrections on them.  So it would be of great interest to Balzac scholars.
     Furniture may be lacking but there are fireplaces and ceiling decoration in the rooms, as well as portraits of Balzac and his family:  his somewhat aloof mother, his agèd father, and his younger sister Laure, to whom he was closest*. There are also a few statues and busts of him throughout the rooms, and many first edition books written by him, although I’m not sure if they actually belonged to him.  For me, the highlight of Things Balzac-ian was his turquoise-studded cane, more flamboyant than elegant, and very reminiscent of the vanity of this famous author’s true nature.

Outside in the garden, there’s another bust of Balzac.  And chairs to sit and enjoy the quiet**.  Not to mention a view of the Eiffel Tower - obviously not something Balzac would have seen, as it was built 37 years after he died. Balzac describes his years in this quiet house as being ascetic, but his abuse of coffee as well as drugs - not to mention his ample waistline and short nights - ended his life at a mere 51 years of age.
     This ordinary house is difficult to reconcile with Balzac’s larger than life persona and profligate spending, but it provided him with the perfect setting to focus on writing his brilliant works.  And that, in itself, is something we should be thankful for.

*  The museum attendant heard my friend and I conjecturing as to who the Laure in the portrait was.  From behind our backs, we heard him say, “That was his sister.  They were very close.”  He went on to tell us other details of Balzac’s life.  This was clearly more than a job to him; he probably went home and Googled things about the author’s life and works.  How many museum attendants do you know who delve into the subject they guard instead of just making sure visitors don’t damage or steal things?
** The day we were there, two teen-age boys were stretched out in the garden.  “You know,” one said to the other, “Balzac smoked cannabis.”  I don’t know who their source was for that little tidbit but it seemed to please them.

Maison de Balzac

47 r Raynouard; 16è
Métro: Passy, or also Trocadéro

Tuesday through Sunday, 10 to 6
Closed Mondays and holidays

Entry free,
but fee for special exhibits

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Recipe of the Month: crêpes for La Chandeleur

Here's a reprint from a few years ago, to mark today:  February 2nd - La Chandeleur.

Although Paris is rarely as cold as Michigan, or even as other parts of France, the City of Light is resolutely grey and damp during the winter months.  Parisians are eager for any scrap of light or warmth.
     Enter la Fête de la Chandeleur.  February 2.
     As with so many feast days, this one has two sides to its story:  a Christian one and a pagan one.  Unlike the chicken and the egg, we know which came first.
     Let’s attack the subject backwards.  The Christian holy day commemorates Mary bringing Jesus to the synagogue 40 days after his birth, as Leviticus required, him being the first-born son.  Later, the 14th century Catholic church linked this day to the Purification of Mary on February 2nd.  In both cases, candles were used to keep Evil at bay.  But that’s Chapter 2.  Let’s flip back to Chapter 1:  the pagans.
     In France, the Fête de la Chandeleur is celebrated with crêpes.  And therein lies the link to the pagan side of the feast day.  Pagans worshiped the Sun.  Especially in the middle of winter, when cold winds blew and the sky was perpetually grey and it seemed like the Sun would never shine again to warm Mother Earth and breathe life back into Nature.  The Celts held a festival on the first of February where they walked through the fields, torches held high, asking the goddess of fertility to purify the earth and make it fruitful.  To bring back the Sun.  And what could better represent the Sun than a crêpe?  It’s round.  It’s pale yellow.  It’s warm.  And it’s nourishing.
     Other pagans held a Festival of the Bear, which came out of hibernation around this time, much like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who comes out - also on February 2nd - to see whether spring is here yet.  They, too, felt early February was a good date for a sun festival.  So there was already a long tradition of a feast day around this season when the Christians started to proselytize.
     Winter.  Cold.  Dormant nature.  Lore mixed and melded with religion.  Out of it came a symbol that everyone, even the poorest, could adopt.  And the winner was the lowly crêpe.

If you want to perpetuate the tradition - or just enjoy a mouthful of paper-thin sweetness, here’s the recipe, (although every mother has her own to hand down to her children):

1 cup flour
3 T butter
2 cups milk
3 eggs
2 T water
1 T rum or vanilla (or lemon or orange zest)
4 T sugar
pinch of salt

- Heat the milk to a boil.  Take it off the burner and add the butter.  Leave it to cool.
- Put the flour in a large bowl.  Make a “well” in the center of the flour and break the eggs into the well, one by one.  Whisk thoroughly.
- Add the pinch of salt and the sugar, then the water, then the flavoring (or zest).  Slowly whisk in the cooled milk.  The batter should have no lumps.  If it does, just strain them out.
- Let the batter sit in the refrigerator for an hour.

Now you’re ready to get down to business. Take an 8" frying pan (non-stick helps) and melt a little nugget of butter.  When it starts to sizzle, pour in just a ladleful of batter.  Make sure the crêpe is almost paper thin. Wiggle the pan around to fill in any holes.  As soon as the edges turn golden and bubbles form and start to pop - which is just about immediately - work it free with a spatula and flip it for just the few seconds it takes to finish up that side.  Sprinkle plain sugar over the top - or spread jam or Nutella... or dribble on a bit of Grand Marnier - and fold the crêpe in half and then in half again.  Eat it while it’s piping hot.
You can make a stack of crêpes ahead of time and keep them warm in the oven.  Then fold them as you serve them up.
  But the French like to all gather around the stove and watch the show.  Especially as the trick is to flip them, not with the spatula, but with a flick of the wrist.  If you manage to flip your crêpe without dropping it on the floor or sticking it to the ceiling, and if you do it with a coin in your other hand (traditionally a louis d’or, but I doubt if you have any of those laying about), then you’ll have good fortune for the entire year.