Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dining Out

Eating out is one of the great joys of being in Paris. The choices are endless -- café or restaurant, large or small, pricey or bargain, ethnic or traditional. At the same time, there are so many tempting fresh fish, poultry, meat, fruits and vegetables stores in our little neighborhood that there is also pleasure in buying ingredients and cooking at home. Somehow though, in the last week, we seem to have been eating out more than usual, and along the way have discovered some new restaurants, and we've learned some interesting history.

Our first outing, last Thursday, was to an early evening author event at the Librairie de Paris, a large bookstore at the Place de Clichy.  Here, we joined a friend who was hosting a group of writers to celebrate the publication of a new book, to which they had all contributed.

It's a clever idea -- Dictionnaire des Mots Parfaits -- a compendium of some 50 writers' choices of their perfect words, and what each one means to them. Some entries are just half a page; some are two to three pages. Some are quite winsome, some serious, others are hilarious.

Stepping outside following the event, we found ourselves in the middle of the sprawling Place de Clichy, which is in the northwest corner of Paris. Four arrondissements meet there at a single point: the 8th, 9th, 17th and 18th. Dominating the square is a 14 meter tall monument dedicated to the Maréchal de Moncey who, in 1814 at the end of the first French Empire, led the defense of the city against the tens of thousands of soldiers, mostly Cossacks, who were marching on Paris.

The scene was captured by the painter Horace Vernet. De Moncey, on horseback, pulled together some 15,000 volunteers at the Barrière de Clichy (one of the gates of Paris), including students from the École polytechnique and the École vétérinaire. In spite of their inexperience, the men managed to hold off the approaching armies until an armistice was reached.  Under Napoleon III, in 1869, the monument we see today was installed in the middle of the Place. A tall, steely-eyed, robed figure, representing the city of Paris, glares sternly out at the invading armies, holding an eagle aloft, with the Maréchal in front brandishing his sword, and fallen men surrounding them. It's a pretty severe and somber monument!

After absorbing all that history, it was definitely time to find a good place to eat. Anchoring one corner of the Place, we spotted Wepler, a classic Parisian brasserie/oyster bar that dates back to the 1920s.

During the day time, you can browse the selections on display outside and pick your own oysters to take home.

We chose to stay and try it out, and because it was only 8 pm -- early for Parisian diners -- we had a corner of the restaurant almost to ourselves.

At the next table, a couple from Sweden were celebrating his 50th birthday. He told us that work mates had chipped in enough money to send them to Paris for a weekend! They went for the full platter of "fruits-de-mer": lobsters, oysters, crab, clams, winkles, even periwinkles!

We, rather more modestly, started with six oysters from Utah Beach, Normandy, because we visited that beach a few years ago, and there will be serious events next month, both in England and here in France, to honor the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, D-Day.

The oysters were large, juicy and delicious and this bottle of wine from the Loire Valley was the perfect accompaniment!

Two nights later, we found ourselves at another new-to-us restaurant, the delightful Chez Vincent on the rue St. Georges in the 9th arrondissement. Family run since the early 1970's it offers traditional Italian dishes, and a warm Italian welcome from the owner/maitre'd.

Small and cosy, with red-checked tablecloths and a wall full of photos, we were (again) among the early birds, although it soon filled up as a big squally rain shower soaked the streets and sent people running inside for cover and for supper!

No printed menus here, just chalk boards with the daily offerings listed in classic French handwriting. Matthew went for the "Trio d'aubergines siciliennes" for his entrée, followed by a "Côte de veau"...

...whilst I went straight for the "Ravioloni ricotta di Buffalo et épinards"...

...and we shared a "tiramisu" for dessert, so good! We will definitely return. Almost best of all, the squally showers stopped, we walked half a block, and caught the #74 bus that stops almost at our door. Perfect evening!

Believe it or not, on Friday night -- in other words, between those two delightful restaurant experiences -- we had an early and substantial supper at another famous Brasserie, the Brasserie Lipp on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Founded in 1880 by a couple from Alsace, Léopold Lipp and his wife, Pétronille, the restaurant first gained fame for its entrée "cervelat remoulade" -- a sausage bathed in a garlic-mayonnaise sauce -- and a serious main course, "choucroute garnie" -- a platter of cabbage, sausage, salted meats, saurkraut and potatoes --  and, not to be outdone, another main dish called "pied de porc" -- pig's trotters! All served with the finest beers.

137 years later, it is still an icon in that part of Saint-Germain, and the current Maître'D, in his formal black suit, crisp white shirt, and black tie, is always ready at the entrance to welcome you.

Inside, the interior is pretty dazzling. Decorative panels, gleaming mirrors, elegant light fixtures, freshly laundered white tablecloths, leather-covered banquettes...
...and old-fashioned (and quite elderly!) waiters -- men only -- in their white aprons, bow ties and ready smiles! The average length of service is nineteen years, but I imagine several have been there much longer. The restaurant does not accept cheques, and they don't serve soda of any kind! They do still have a great selection of beer and, of course, wines.

Dotted around the restaurant, signs from an earlier era still catch your attention. I especially loved this one, politely asking pipe smokers to refrain from spreading their perfumed tobacco around the restaurant...

...and this one, requesting clients -- in the interest of hygiene -- not to feed their dogs in the restaurant, nor to allow the dogs to climb up on the seats!

At the Brasserie Lipp you get an old-fashioned, printed menu, with specialties of the house highlighted in red.

I chose this plate of delicious herring and sliced onions over a bed of warm yellow potatoes. It was enough for a full meal, but I had also ordered... pie for my main dish! I liked the way the slice of toast took on the appearance of a jaunty sail on top of the browned mashed potatoes (lots of potatoes at this restaurant!)

Meanwhile, Matthew opted for the traditional route:  a plate of six escargots...

...followed by the top specialty, the "choucroute garnie"! I think he was channeling his friend, Walter Bernstein, who makes a mean "choucroute" himself in his Manhattan kitchen.

There was no time for dessert or coffee this particular evening, as we were due to be across the street at l'Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés for a concert at 8:30 pm. One of the oldest Romanesque churches in France, Saint-Germain was founded by King Childebert I as an abbey in AD 558. The village of Saint-Germain grew up and flourished around it. After the Normans destroyed the abbey in the 9th/10th centuries, it was rebuilt during the 11th and 12th centuries and that is pretty much the church as we see it today, with some restorations along the way. The abbey buildings behind and alongside the church were destroyed during the French Revolution.

It's been a while since we've attended an event there, so we were astonished and delighted to discover it is the midst of a huge restoration. The main nave is complete, the side chapels are still being worked on and were blocked off. The soaring arches, ceilings and walls are alive with bright colors, the stained glass has never looked so beautiful.

I spent most of the evening looking up at the detailed work in the ceilings, the dark French navy blue background and sparkling gold stars.

In the 19th century, the French painter, Jean-Hyppolite Flandrin painted the murals above the arches around the main nave. Here's one of Moses in the "altogether", parting the waters so the Israelites could escape, cleverly draped by a breaking wave!

As well as admiring the restoration work, we were also there to attend a concert given by Richard Galliano, the French "accordeonist extraordinaire", who drew a completely sold out crowd.

Galliano is considered the master of jazz accordian worldwide. His repertoire is a mix of jazz and popular music, feeding off French chanson and musette, American blues music, and Brazilian forro. We were treated to all variations of these in a foot-stomping, crowd-cheering recital. The audience could not get enough! He even included his riffs on classical music, like Debussy's Clair de lune. I can't wait to present his version of that timeless piece on my next classical show on KWMR!

After all that excitement and new finds in the restaurant world, we also managed earlier this week to have lunch at one of our local favorite bistrots, Le Gavroche, set on a quiet side street just around the corner from the big Agence France Presse building.

Here, you won't find many tourists at lunch time, the diners are either journalists taking a break from their stories, or other people who work in the neighborhood.

You also won't see the waiter writing your order in a notebook -- it gets recorded directly on the paper sheet that covers the red-checked tablecloths. We were three for lunch, so our order was quickly jotted down: 1 mignon (filet mignon) for our friend Emmanuel, 1 blanquette (de veau) for me, and 1 lamb chop for Matthew!

 It's amazing how delicious a simple lamb chop on a bed of green beans can be, in such a warm and friendly setting.

 Not to mention their famous "cheesecake" dessert to round off another divine "eating out" day!

And so it's been this past week -- just one mouth-watering experience after another! But, as I mentioned at the beginning, we are also so fortunate in having great resources for home cooking in our little corner of Paris. Yesterday, I went up to the rue du Nil and bought a Dorade (sea bream) from the fishmonger, some local Île-de-France potatoes and a striped zucchini squash from the greengrocer across from him, and voilà, a delicious home cooked supper! As Julia Child would say...

Bon Appétit!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

"What's in a name...?"

...well, in Shakespeare's opinion, it's a mere artificial and meaningless convention, but if the name happens to be "Fragonard", it turns out you have at least three very distinct worlds to enter.

First off, there is the world of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), a French painter, who produced over 550 paintings in a late Rococo style. He was born in Grasse, in the Alpes-Maritimes, and took up work for a Paris notary as a way to help the family finances. His first love, though, was art, and he soon found himself studying under the great luminist, Chardin, in his atelier.

 He was later accepted into the studio of François Boucher, and quickly acquired the Rococo style of the Master. Winner of the Prix du Rome in 1752, Fragonard spent some time in Italy, with the painter Hubert Robert. Here, he fell in love with the sumptuous gardens, grottoes, fountains and temples.

With Coresus et Callirhoe, Fragonard gained admission to the Academy.  Louis XV was so enamored of the painting, he ordered that it be reproduced as a tapestry at the Gobelins factory!

Now in demand by the wealthy, pleasure loving members of Louis' court, Fragonard produced works full of romance, exuberance, and intrigue. In The Swing, he shows a young woman being pushed on a swing by her husband, kicking her legs up into the air. The other young man (her lover), hiding behind the bushes, is well placed to peek under her skirts!

With the advent of the French Revolution, Jean-Honoré Fragonard's aristocratic patrons were either guillotined or exiled. He sought refuge himself, back in his home town of Grasse. He did return to Paris in the early 19th century, but died virtually unknown in 1806. For the next fifty years or so, he was completely forgotten. Eventually, his reputation reemerged as one of the all-time masters of French painting. His grand-niece, Berthe Morisot is said to have been influenced by his use of color and his brushwork. And in 2013, a portrait he made of François-Henri duc d'Harcourt from 1769 sold at Bonham's in London for over 28 million dollars! Somewhere, Monsieur J-H Fragonard must be shaking his head!

And now to the second Fragonard -- Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799) -- whose world is so very different, and yet whose family roots are closely tied to the painter Jean-Honoré. They were first cousins, born the same year, and both born in the town of Grasse. However, Honoré Fragonard was not a painter, although some might call him an artist. He trained to be a surgeon, joining the world's first veterinary school in Lyons in 1762 as a professor of anatomy.  Later, Louis XV moved the school to Paris and it eventually settled into a sprawling campus at Maisons d'Alfort, on the outskirts of Paris, where Fragonard was named director. It still functions today as L'École nationale veterinaire d'Alfort, training students, pursuing research, and, yes, treating animals -- large and small! On learning that there's a museum attached to the school, we decided to go check it out.

Founded alongside the veterinary school in 1766, and growing out of the "cabinet du Roi", the Musée Fragonard is one of the oldest museums in France. It has survived wars and revolutions, and although it may not be on everyone's top ten list of must-see museums, as someone who worked at CalAcademy for eighteen years, it immediately appealed to me!

For 250 years it has housed some 4000 specimens devoted to anatomy and teratology, articulated animal skeletons, and to disease and pathology -- a veritable cabinet of curiosities!

There's a lot of emphasis on horses, who were the principal form of transportation in the 18th century, whether you were riding on horseback or being conveyed in a horse-drawn carriage. So, many displays of horse skulls...

...and horses' teeth, by which early veterinary students could learn how to read the animal's age.

Other animals are also displayed, I got a laugh at this sharp-toothed crocodile jaw, seemingly laughing at the world!

There were a few human skulls and one complete human skeleton.

But just as a reminder that we humans are pretty insignificant in the larger order of things, there's a whole room devoted to full skeletons of an array of creatures, big and small, camels, elephants, rhinoceroses, lions and small dogs. Not a human in sight.

A separate room focusses on "anomalies", like this two-headed sheep. Another showed a horse with one central eye, like a Cyclops, and chicken skulls the size of basketballs. There was also a display of a ten-legged sheep preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. I'll spare you that image, but I did wonder if Damien Hirst has ever been to this museum!

And then there was this sight of a horse's spine, twisted with scoliosis. Sad to look at it, although I imagine it was a useful teaching tool for those 18th/19th century students who didn't have the advantage of modern computer modelling of the world of anatomy.

At the far end of the museum, in a climate controlled, dimly-lit room are the oldest and most valued specimens, all centered around the work of Honoré Fragonard himself. Early on in his anatomy career, he became immersed in the process of mummification of specimens, called "les écorches" in French. To say that these displays are grisly would be a big understatement! The Cabinet of Curiosities had become the Chamber of Horrors.  I'll just share this one of a llama, skin removed, but muscles and veins visible and even flexed. Like I said, grisly! In fact, Fragonard devoted so much time to this unique form of anatomy, and in some cases, presented his specimens in such wild, dramatic poses, that he was deemed to be a madman, and in 1771 was dismissed from the School. However, it seems that having an "écorche" in your home had become quite the rage, so for a while he was able to make a good living for himself producing more of these flayed creatures. Some people even considered it a true art form, although I'm not sure his cousin, Jean-Honoré would have agreed!

As it turns out, however, the Fragonard Museum at the veterinary school is not the only museum in Paris with the name "Fragonard" attached to it. Tucked off the bustling streets around the Opera, is the entrance to the Musée Parfum Fragonard. Free guided tours are offered and, curious to know more, we happily tagged along with a group of French visitors.

The building itself used to be a theatre, the Éden Theatre, known as quite the showplace with large halls and rooms, its design inspired by Egyptian and Indian architecture, which were in fashion at the time. Later in the 19th century, however, the theatre was forced to close, and was partly destroyed. Later still, it was converted into a place where Parisians could learn how to cycle on a rotating cycling carousel. I love the idea that you could practice your cycling skills indoors before venturing out into the noisy, dangerous streets!

Meanwhile down south, in the town of Grasse, shortly before WWI, an entrepreneur named Eugène Fuchs, who had already been seduced by the magic of perfume, decided to set up his own perfumery and sell the products directly to the tourists who were beginning to discover the French Rivera's charms. Parfumerie Fragonard was opened in 1926. Fuchs chose to name it after our famous Grasse-born painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, as a tribute both to the town of Grasse, and to the refinement of 18th century arts.

Through three succeeding generations, the company has grown and flourished, expanding  finally to Paris. Along the way, the family amassed a unique collection of antique perfume related items that form the backbone of the museum

These include utilitarian items like this small vat and still...

...and this stuffed civet cat, whose glands were apparently an important ingredient in the early years of the process!

A vast underground room had displays of large vats and pipes, funnels, flasks and several screens showing old black and white photographs of the journey the raw flowers go through in their transformation from petals and stems to expensive perfume!

A large poster told us all about the "Olfactive Pyramid", all the different "notes" -- high, middle and low -- that attach to the raw materials and that you cannot smell all at once. There are "green" notes, "floral" notes, "fruity" notes. It's up to the Perfumer to find the right levels of harmony and balance to achieve the right result from high, middle and low notes.

This display was, aptly, described as the "organ of scents", a keyboard of choices for the clever Perfumer.

Displays, starting from Egyptian times to the present day, showed really beautiful perfume bottles. I loved this selection from the late 19th/early 20th century.

And I really loved this small golden hanging perfume holder, like a miniature incense holder, so delicate!

Not surprisingly, our tour ended up in the Fragonard showroom, where we were invited to sample scents, try to guess the flower or plant they were based on, and then, of course to browse the offerings and make some purchases. Very smart marketing: the prices were quite affordable! No great surprises at what I'll be bringing home with me!

So, what's in a name?  Shakespeare's quote from Romeo and Juliet continues, "that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet."  There were certainly plenty of rose fragrances at the Musée Parfum Fragonard, and there were plenty of roses in many of Jean-Honoré Fragonard's lavish paintings. In the "écorche" world of Honoré Fragonard?....not so much!!

À bientôt!