Thursday, March 24, 2011

Seeking Pearls...

...pearls of barley, that is, although pearls of wisdom are always welcome and often needed! One day last week, as I was lounging around, resting my sore back, I spotted what seemed like an interesting recipe in The Guardian: Lamb Stew with Pearl Barley. Now, I love lamb in any shape or form, and this was a new recipe to me. One look at the photo, and I immediately began salivating. Yum!

Scanning the ingredients, I was pretty sure I could find everything at our local branch of the U-Marché on the rue Montorgeuil.

What held me back, though, was the fact that our elevator has been broken for almost three weeks now, so, due to the back problem, I've not been all that eager to go down, and then back up, six flights of stairs.

However, with Matthew at my side (to carry the shopping bag!), and with recipe in hand, I decided to give it a go.

At the U-Marché we had no trouble finding the neck of lamb, the carrots, turnips, celery, leeks and onions. My pencil checked off each ingredient as we went along, until all that remained was the pearl barley (orge pérlée).

We stopped in front of the "grains" shelf and looked around. Hmm. Thai rice, Basmati rice, Jasmine rice, Arborio rice, wild rice, three-grained rice, long grained rice, short-grained rice, even dear old Uncle Ben's rice! We found cous-cous in various flavors, several choices of lentils, and a big sack of kernels of corn. But no pearl barley.

Clearly we had a problem, because this was the key ingredient. What to do. Well, here in France, when you can't find something, then you find someone to help you find it. And this is where you run into a most endearing trait of life in this country.

Matthew went off in search of assistance, returning a few minutes later with two members of the staff, both women. We explained what we were looking for. They looked puzzled. "What are you cooking, Madame?" "Un ragout d'agneau," I replied, showing them the recipe. There then followed a lengthy conversation about how delicious lamb stew is! I translated the ingredients, going down the list. They nodded at each one, until we got to pearl barley. "Orge pérlée," we repeated. Ah, now they understood. They scoured the shelves again, finding only another row of rice at the very bottom.

Well, perhaps I could substitute rice for the barley I suggested. They shook their heads emphatically. No no, Madame, that wouldn't work because this one was the wrong shape, that one was too soft, those others wouldn't have the right texture, etc.

They must have spent close to fifteen minutes discussing the problem with us, as if they had all the time in the world, and our search for pearl barley was the most important thing they could be doing at that particular moment. This is not unusual here. No matter what kind of store you're in, you almost always have to wait to get help. Sometimes the lines in the post office can be incredibly long, for instance. But once it's "your turn", then you hold center stage for as long as you need to solve your problem. For visitors, and especially Americans, it definitely requires an adjustment to be patient when you're waiting, but none of the locals complain because at the end of the day, you will have your turn!!

We thanked the two women for their time and efforts, wished them "bonne journée" and turned to go to the checkout. Before we left the market, one of them suggested we try the Moroccan Spice Store further down the street.

Matthew headed down to the bottom of rue Montorgeuil, where this delightful Marrakesh emporium offers nuts and fruits and fresh spices. And there...right inside the entrance...front and center...

...stood a large bin of "d'orge pérlée!" Eureka! Matthew explained to the proprietor that we'd been up at the U-Marché, and had just about given up when they had suggested we try his store. "Ah, yes, we all know each other here on rue Montorgeuil," he said measuring out half a kilo. "If it's not enough," he went on, "come on back, we're open until 11 pm."

Luckily, it was more than enough. I went to work in the kitchen, and before long, delicious aromas permeated throughout the flat. At dinner that evening we sat down to sample this new dish. What can I say, it was utterly delicious. Perhaps made even more so, by the sweet memories of the friendly, helpful merchants on the rue Montorgeuil.


À bientôt!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Le Marché aux Puces

When people here talk about going to the flea market, it's usually assumed they mean the sprawling "marché aux puces" at the northern end of Paris, by the Porte de Clignancourt. Established as a fixed market at this site in the 1880s, it followed centuries when the city was filled with  roving groups of rag-and-bone men and women. Also known as "pêcheurs de lune" (moonlight fishermen), these scavengers would poke through the city at night, looking for abandoned treasures which they would re-sell at local markets.

Today, this marché aux puces stretches over 17 acres, comprises several buildings and hundreds of outdoor stalls, boasts 2500 dealers, and attracts well over 100,000 visitors every weekend - a daunting prospect, which is probably why it's been years since we've gone up there!

For us, a much more appealing flea market is the Marché au Vanves, which can be found (every Saturday and Sunday) at the absolute opposite end of the city, right by the Porte de Vanves, an easy metro or bus ride out to the 14th arrondissement.

Here, among 200 traders, you'll find a wonderfully eclectic collection of objects and curiosities, most of them reasonably priced, and most of them portable, although delivery of larger items can be arranged.

The sun was shining this morning --  there was even a faint sound of bird song! --  so we took ourselves down to the Avenue Marc Sangnier, and spent a happy couple of hours, strolling slowly along the two streets that comprise this flea market.

Some visitors like to browse the bookstalls or the cd/dvd stalls, hoping to find bargains, or, perhaps, pirated new movie releases...

...while others might pore over the extensive array of woodworking tools. I can imagine several West Marin folk hanging out here!

One of my favorite stalls sells only buttons...regular, ordinary-looking buttons, a dozen or more to the card...

...or exotic, jewel-like buttons, sold by the piece. They almost look like candy!

This stall gets Matthew's total attention; an old movie projector in its original box, with an accompanying selection of what looks to be 8mm home movies. At this point in its life, it's become a piece of sculpture, begging for an honored place of display.

If you need some refreshment as you go along, this good woman will sell you hot chocolate or coffee from her caddy of flasks which she wheels through the market, along with a tray of baked goodies.

As always, I am drawn to anything having to do with natural history, whether it's gaping shark teeth, grinning at me...

...or a sad looking heron, lost amidst barstools and flower vases!

The stallholders tend to sit by their vehicles, pretending not to be all that interested in anything but their newspaper, but, somehow, they're right at your elbow if you examine any object for more than a few seconds. I particularly liked the "saintly" figure standing guard behind this merchant -- Joan of Arc, perhaps?

Towards the end of the first street, this stall caught my eye as having so many stories to tell. Who are those people in the photographs and drawings? Who wore that lace-edged cap? What treasures were hidden in the little wooden box?

When you reach the cross-street of Avenue Georges Lafenstre, a cheerful fellow belts out tunes on his "box piano", whilst behind him,
someone is roasting chestnuts.

For us, one of great pleasures of going to the Marché au Vanves is that we can take the #95 bus home, and enjoy a pretty complete tour of many iconic views of Paris, including this archway to the Tuileries, across from the Louvre!

Back home, we admire the treasures we found this morning: a  caned chair from the 30s or 40s, which goes very nicely with my desk from the 50s...

...and these charming dessert forks, also from the 30s or 40s -- the perfect accompaniment to the Napoleon dessert plates we bought on a previous visit to the Marché au Vanves.

Who knows what we'll find next week....

À bientôt!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

'Allo, Paris Calling (redux)

If you were following this blog last year, you'll remember that when it came time to make my radio recordings for KWMR, I was able to convert a tiny linen cupboard into a perfect hideaway "booth". Our current flat, alas, has no such convenient space. There's only one cupboard in the entire place, with barely room to hang a couple of coats. Certainly no room for recording equipment. Time to put our heads together with nephew Sean to come up with a solution!

With windows that run the entire length of one side of the flat, there was only one possible area to consider -- the interior hallway, just to the left of the front door, presently home to a coat rack and a Cuban film poster.

Hmmm. If there was a way to create an enclosed nook somewhere there, I just might be in business.

Off I went on my infamous trip to Ikea (see blog The Right of Return), where I found a narrow, white drop front desk.

At home, after Matthew put in a few hours of herculean assembly efforts, this little "pip of a rig" tucked itself discreetly into the corner, next to the coat rack, barely visible to anyone.

All that remained was to order a light-weight, shoji screen, drape the spare bed quilt over it and the coat closet door, open up the drop front desk, connect my computer to my Mbox, go to ProTools, create a new session ...

...and, voilà! I'm off and running. "Good morning, and welcome to Turning Pages at Nature's Pace...."

You can check out the results tomorrow, Monday, 10 am PST at

Best of all, the whole thing takes less than five minutes to set up and, once I'm done, it's folded and put away as quickly and as neatly as The Great Walled City of Xan!

Meanwhile, out in the Parc Vincennes, where Matthew frequently bikes, daffodils are bursting out everywhere.

Spring is tip-toeing around the corner!

À bientôt!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Street Smarts

One of the things I love about walking in Paris is how much French history I learn, just by reading the street names! Some are straightforward, like rue de l'Opera, but others offer tidbits of information that, inevitably, lead me to dig a little deeper to find out more.

Here's our street name, for example, honoring someone named Réaumur, a physician and a naturalist. Curious to know more, I looked him up.
I discovered, among other things, that René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur was prolific in many fields of science, was elected a member of the Académie de Sciences in 1708, and from then on, for nearly half a century, barely a year went by without at least one paper by him being published in the Mémoires de l'Academie. These included one confirming that crustaceans can replace lost limbs and another confirming that corals are animals, not plants.  An 18th century Stephen J. Gould perhaps!

Then there's rue Étienne Marcel, another major street in our neighborhood.

The street sign tells you that M. Marcel was the Provost of Merchants of Paris during his 14th century life.

But it turns out that Étienne Marcel's life was also full of drama, danger and political intrigue.   Yes, he did have this title of Provost of Merchants during the reign of King John II, known as John the Good, but then he tried to set up Charles the Bad of Navarre (that was his real name!) to oppose John the Good. Bad idea. Not only did he run afoul of the King, he further undermined his name with the aristrocacy by murdering two marshals, and then was himself murdered by guards at the Porte Saint-Antoine on July 31st 1358.

In spite of all this notoriety, though, his name is officially remembered on the street sign (and also on a big statue near the Hotel de Ville) as merely Provost of Merchants.

Walking down the rue du Louvre in the 1st arrondissement the other day,  I noticed this street sign recognizing a Colonel Driant. The final line of the plaque, "mort à Verdun", made me think at first, "oh, another tragic loss of a young life," but then I calculated his dates and realized he was 61 years old when he died. Obviously, there was a story here...

...and it didn't take long to find out that Émile Augustin Cyprien Driant had been a distinguished career military officer until 1906 when he devoted himself to journalism and politics, serving in the Chamber of Deputies in Nancy.

Throughout all this time, however, he also moonlit as a fiction writer.  Using the pseudonym Danrit, he produced 30 novels over 25 years, all of them with heroic military themes.

When WWI began, he was recalled to the army, at age 59,  as Captain, and sent to the Eastern Front. In a desperate defence of the Bois des Caires in Flabas, he was killed by enemy artillery on 21 February 1916. Today, he's still considered a hero in France, remembered every year on the day of his death, along with his comrades, although his novels seem to have fallen into oblivion...

Then there's rue d'Argout, which bisects both rue du Louvre and rue Étienne Marcel.

"homme politique" it says -- politician?

Well, yes, but le Comte Antoine Maurice Apollinaire d'Argout was a politician who seems to have navigated the treacherous waters of 19th century French politics by following a centrist, moderate path through the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy. He even contracted cholera and survived. His skills did not go unnoticed by the Banque de France, where he was appointed Governor, retaining this position until his death on 9 June 1857. His prominent nose made him a popular target of the caricaturists of the day, including the inimitable Honoré Daumier!

During the same period as le Comte Argout was pursuing his steady, straightforward life, a young man from Limoges was following a different path.

Born near Limoges in 1818, Dennis Dussoubs became a left wing political activist, participating in the uprising at Limoges in 1848, and serving two years in prison. His brother, Marcellin, was elected a social-democrat deputy in Paris in 1849, and, two years later helped organize the resistance movement against Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'État. In a cruel twist of fate, Marcellin fell ill, and it was Dennis who picked up his brother's tricolor banner and took his place on the barricades at the rue Montorgeuil. He walked toward the soldiers, alone and unarmed, urging them to rally to the Republique and reject the Monarchy. To no avail. He was hit by rifle shot and died on the barricade. In Limoges, a statue in Juliette Square honors his sacrifice. In Paris, he has a street name to intrigue the curious passer-by.

As one such curious passer-by I love the fact that all this history -- and much more -- lies within a three block radius from our flat!

À bientôt!