Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Recipe: Moules marinières

I spent all the summers of my childhood on or near the Atlantic coast in the (then-)pretty part of central New Jersey (yes, there was one, on the Toms River... Island Heights and Seaside Heights).  I learned to swim in the almost-saltwater slightly upriver from Barnegat Bay, on which my father, in his youth, had learned to sail.  Spent my summers walking the sands, digging out clams, then cracking them open on any stones available.  We’d rinse the sand off in the seawater and eat them right there, feet still in the tides.  Couldn’t have been fresher.  (Maybe it’s not a good idea to do that any more, pollution having multiplied since then.) 
In spite of all that, I'd never eaten mussels.  Clams, oysters, crabs, shrimp, crayfish, yes.  But no mussels.

When I arrived in France to study at the Sorbonne in 1968, the seafood restaurants in Montparnasse, or the simple cafés that had shellfish on stands next to their entrance, caught my eye.  And set my stomach growling.
Luckily mussels weren't an expensive dish, even for my student finances, which were... shall we just say "limited".
And they were yummy.  
Plus they came with French fries.  Moules frites.

So if you can find fresh mussels, and you want to plan a dinner for your covid bubble where you can get your hands dirty on something delicious while keeping up a conversation, all accompanied by a dry white wine... this is for you.

To feed four people, you’ll need:

- 3-4 pounds of mussels, medium-sized
- one large white onion, diced
- 5 or 6 sprigs of parsley, coarsely chopped
- 1½ c white wine
- an optional stalk of celery, strings removed, then diced
- some freshly ground pepper

You’ll need to make sure the mussels are “clean”, which means no barnacles or seaweed still on the shells.  If there are any, just scrape them off with a sharp paring knife.  And make very sure the mussels are all alive, which means not opened.  If some are open, tickle their insides with the knife; if they’re alive, the shell will close.  If the shell remains open, you absolutely must throw that mussel out - it’s shuffled off its mortal coil and could make you very ill.
Once the mussels are clean, put them in a large pot, along with the onion, celery, pepper, and half the parsley.  Pour the white wine over them.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Cook for about 2 minutes, shaking and tossing the pot from time to time to make sure all the mussels are in the juice at one point or another.
       Check that all the shells have opened.  If not, put the pot back on the burner for a minute more.  You don’t want to overcook this or the mussel meat will be withered and less tasty.
Serve up with a slotted spoon into individual bowls, putting the broth in a serving dish.  Along with their own juice, the mussels will probably have given off some sand that was in the shell, so make sure you leave it in the pot.  Decorate with the rest of the parsley.  Couldn’t be any easier
Dig in while it’s hot.  (And provide a big bowl for the empty shells in the middle of the table.)
Serve with crusty French bread if possible, or Italian.  And a dry white wine.

By the way, all the alcohol will have evaporated in the cooking, so you don’t have to worry about serving this to underage diners or non-drinkers.  Trust me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Out & About: Museums - Van Dongen and the Bateau-Lavoir

I’ve lived in Montmartre since 1970.  That’s longer than most of my neighbors have been on this Earth.
     Back in those days, the Musée de Montmartre was just a little house built in the 17th century.  That house has a name, the Maison du Bel Air (House of Fresh Air) and originally came complete with a vineyard, which is still there, next door but now separate.  The house was bought in 1680 by the successor to Molière, famous French actor and playwright Rosimonde, as his country home (at a time when Paris was far away by carriage).
     Centuries later, the little house is still there, now reputedly the oldest building in Montmartre, and is used for the museum’s permanent collection.
     But the building through which you enter, once in bad shape and uninhabited for decades, has now been totally renovated - in the style of the era though! - and houses the museum’s temporary exhibits.

This season it’s Kees Van Dongen, another Dutchman who moved to Paris, as did Jongkind, Van Gogh, and Mondrian.
     Invited by Picasso, Van Dongen moved into the now-famous Bateau-Lavoir, a long wooden building where artists lived and painted, side by side, in cramped, cold quarters.  Together, the two shared artistic inspirations, such as the various balls but also the Cirque Médrano, a circus that’s now disappeared but was still there when I moved to Montmartre.  (The two artists also shared women, including Fernande, who was Picasso’s mistress when they met... before becoming Van Dongen’s.)

Like many of his era, Van Dongen shows his classical training in his early works.  It served him well even once he had changed to his new love, fauvism, with its bright colors and the opulent silhouettes that were a slap in the face of his old friend Picasso’s cubism.  Sometimes his canvases seem unfinished, with those bright colors forming only a sort of frame around the subject, and both standing out against a blank background.
     His wide-ranging styles are obvious in one corner of the main floor where there are three very different works from one year, 1906.  Chinagrani, on the left, is a very minimalist depiction of the dancer of that name, all in blue and elongated.  On the other end is Le Cirque, an example of his colorful fauvist talent.  Between the two, Aux Folies Bergère is pure Impressionism.
     Also on this first floor, in a little alcove, are some works by his good friend Otto van Rees, including a lovely one of his lover, Adya in the Bateau-Lavoir (1904).

Upstairs are grouped many of the portraits from the 1920's that helped make Van Dongen rich, successful, and even mondain, which could be translated as “part of the glitterati”.  The first is of Marie-Thérèse Raulet relaxing in a typically Roaring Twenties dress, her eyes almost closed, her head resting on the sofa, her hand draped languorously over its arm.  It’s a very different style from Woman Sewing that hangs downstairs, painted with broad strokes to transmit more a feeling than a likeness.  In this later period of his life, Van Dongen became somewhat cavalier about art as a way of making a living.  “The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim. After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels.  They are ravished.”
     In La Parisienne, the woman’s hands are painted in a much more traditional style, while her face is minimalist and one-dimensional.  Perhaps that is what he called primitivism?

In addition to his paintings, Van Dongen made a living from illustrations sold to various magazines throughout his career.  He was also in demand by authors, including Proust, who wanted him to illustrate their works.  Some of his creations are included in this exhibit.
     Most of the works come from private collections, but also from museums in Paris and Holland (Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amsterdam).  As with the Mary Cassatt exhibit at Musée Jacquemart-André, it’s a treat to have the chance to see works that have never before co-existed in one place - including in the artist’s studio, given that they date from different eras.
     The exhibit is small, as befits the setting.  But it offers a good representation of Van Dongen’s successive styles and periods.

Two “asides” to this visit.  One is a parenthesis:  Otto van Rees.  The other, at the end of the exhibit,  is a visit of Suzanne Valadon’s actual studio.  She, too, was one of the beauties Van Dongen pursued.

Van Dongen & the Bateau-Lavoir

Musée de Montmartre
12 rue Cortot; 18è
Métro: Abbesses or Lamarck-Caulincourt

Until August 26, 2018

Daily 10-7 / closes at 6 pm Oct-March

9.50-12 & 7.50-9 €, free under age 10

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, in Fontevrault Abbey


"But I know nothing about French history," you might say.
"Ah, but you do!" I would reply.
Robin Hood?  Richard the Lionhearted?  Prince John?  Sound familiar?
Religious?  How about Saint Patrick?
Or a bit harder now:  William the Conqueror?  Eleanor of Aquitaine?

Let's go chronologically.  England was a "green and happy land", as the hymnal says, until 1066 when William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, sailed across the Channel from France and defeated England's King Harold in the famous Battle of Hastings.  With that defeat, England's fate changed hands for two centuries.
English, which had flourished as a language, now was spoken only by the Common Man, while Latin governed the church and French, in its Norman version, ruled the castle.  For example, while English serfs raised and ate pigs, by the time they reached the Norman's table they were porc.  Sheep became mouton, ox or cow became boeuf, calf was veau and deer, venaison.  (Do those French words sound familiar?  If not, ask your butcher.)
In 1154, Henry, Duke of Anjou in France and grandson of William the Conqueror, was crowned king of England as Henry the Second.  Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had previously been Queen of France for 15 years, even going on the Second Crusade with her then-husband, King Louis VII.  But she was a bit too wild and sensuous for Louis.  They became estranged and the marriage was annulled so that Louis could remarry (Catholic country, no divorces).  That meant Eleanor's dowry was returned to her:  the entire province of Aquitaine.  Just as William had brought Normandy into the English realm with him, so Henry brought Anjou and Eleanor, Aquitaine.  Now the borders of England stretched all the way down the Atlantic (with the exception of Wales) from Scotland in the north to Spain in the south, and inland on the Continent almost to the gates of Paris in the tiny kingdom of France.
Chinon Castle
Now for the easy part.  Remember Richard the Lionhearted (think Robin Hood) and his evil brother Prince John?  Well, they are two of the sons of Henry and Eleanor.  And where did Richard die?  No, not in Sherwood Forest or on one of the Crusades, but at Chinon in France’s Loire Valley, at the castle where Joan of Ark later offered her services to the French king to help "throw the English out of France", services for which said English burned her at the stake.  And where are Henry, Eleanor and Richard buried?  No, not in London's Westminster Abbey.  Their graves are in the Abbey of Fontevrault, again in France's Loire Valley.
"But what’s this about St. Patrick," you ask?  Well, he was born in England, carried off into slavery by Irish raiders, then later after being freed studied at the Abbey of Lérins, on a tiny Mediterranean island off of Cannes.  Right next to the island of The Man in the Iron Mask (but that's another story).

So you see, you may never have set foot in France, or read about its history, but you know a lot about it.  You just didn't know you did.

Additional reseach:
Bayeux Cathedral
William the Conqueror:  go to Bayeux and see the famous tapestry woven by his wife Mathilda.
For Richard Lionheart, tour Chinon and its castle.
For Eleanor, Richard and son Henry, visit Fontevrault Abbey near Chinon.
For a touch of Aquitaine, try any Bordeaux vineyard or truffle farm in Périgord.
Joan of Ark - choose Chinon, or Lorraine where she was born, or Rouen where she was burned
For St. Patrick, take sunscreen, travel south and hop a ferry from Cannes to St. Honorat Island.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Out & About - King Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

It’s a sunny day in Paris - finally! - and I’m walking across the 2½-acre Parc de la Villette, past the famous Baltard glass-and-iron structure (one of several) that was once the Poney Club where my children learned to ride when they were very young.
     Of course before that time, all these buildings were a meat market, replaced by a huge modern slaughterhouse that never slaughtered a single animal because all those activities were hygienically banned from within Paris and sent to the suburbs.  The never-used slaughterhouse was refurbished and is now the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie museum, with the Géode Imax theater behind it.
     Also within this park on the northeast edge of Paris are the new Paris Music Conservatory, the Cité de la Musique with its museum of all things musical, the Zénith concert and sports arena, the Philharmonie concert hall, the Grande Halle cultural center, a theater and... a riding school... for my grandchildren this time.

But I digress.
     Why am I here?  Because I want to see the “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibit that’s playing in the Grande Halle.
     This will be a bit of a rerun for me.  Or rather a remake.  Because I saw these objects in the Tutankhamun Room of the Cairo Museum when I was there in 2017.  But they were all a hodgepodge, massed together in showcases with little breathing space for them to shine as solo items.  Here in Paris, knowing the French, they will be staged, highlighted, spotlighted in striking fashion.  It’s what the French do best.

And once inside, which involves standing in line, even with a press pass, I’m not disappointed.  The vastness of the building, with its high ceiling, makes for a spacious exhibit.  Sometimes only a few items in any one room... but multiple spectators, so that was a wise decision on the curator’s part.  And spotlights are indeed involved, the entire area being plunged into almost total darkness for maximum effect.  All the better to accent the goldenness of the 150 items, which sparkle from having been newly - and ever-so-carefully - cleaned before the show set out on its worldwide tour.
     I recognize Tut’s chair and bed from the Cairo Museum, as well as much of the jewelry, pectorals and statues.  But here they are even more striking in their visual solitude.  A solitude poles away from how they were found heaped in Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1924.

      There's a golden statue of my old friend Horus, the hawk, with a magnificent disk above his head.  And a fan with the representation of an ostrich hunt in a chariot etched into its golden surface.
     Also striking against the darkness of the room are the alabaster objects:  a wishing cup and - at the very end of the exhibit, to bid us farewell - a statue of the young king, who ruled from age 9 only to age 19.  Ten years in the life of a boy whom we still talk about 3,342 years after the young pharaoh passed into eternity.
     In one showcase is a replica of Tut’s sarcophagus, fashioned out of a matte slate-grey material against which the crook and flail jump out at you.  Wondering why the sarcophagus is not part of the exhibit, I ask.  I’m told it was slightly damaged when it last traveled to Paris in 1967.  And so it doesn’t travel any more, to Paris or anywhere else.

But all the items on display here will be traveling around the globe one last time.  The tour launched in L.A. at the California Science Center in March of last year.  It took in $5 million from about 700,000 visitors, with the Egyptian ministry taking $4 for each ticket.  And that money will help pay for the new Grand Egyptian Museum still being built in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo proper and the objects’ former home in the Cairo Museum.
     Paris is the second stop on the tour, a six-month show.  After that, in the fall the Golden King exhibition heads across the Channel to London and then later on to Sydney plus six other cities including in Japan, Canada and South Korea.
     We’re told this will be the last time these objects are seen outside of Egypt.  After the tour, these golden treasures will join the others - especially the sarcophagus - in the Grand Egyptian Museum, not far from the Pyramids and the Sphinx.  The museum isn’t finished yet - and has had a difficult birthing, given the changes in government - Mubarak, Morsi, el-Sissi - since its ground-breaking.  According to an Egyptian archaeologist friend, “the conservation center in the museum has been active since 2014 or even before”, and Tut’s collection has been moved “to the labs of the conservation center to be cleaned and restored with more advanced methods that brought more beauty to the items”.
     For the first time, the entire collection will be on display in 2020 in one place:  at the very heart of the GEM in Giza.  And it will be the only place you will see anything of King Tut’s ever again.

King Tutankhamun

P.S.  If you want a look at something else from Egypt, how about the Luxor Obelisk in the middle of the Place de la Concorde.  Napoleon brought it back from his marauding in that southern land.  The second obelisk was also given to the French back then, but remains on site in Luxor.  France magnanimously told Egypt it could stay there, that they gave up their ownership of it, probably because of the intricate and expensive logistics of bringing it to Paris.  They got lucky with the first one.

King Tut:  Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Grande Halle de la Villette
211 avenue Jean-Jaurès; 19è
Métro:  Porte de Pantin

Until September 15, 2019

Daily 10-8 / Fri 10:30-8:30

22 & 18 € (2€ more on week-ends and holidays)