Monday, August 31, 2009

Cooking & Eating in France

We're preparing some art work to sell at a lively local art fair in a couple of weeks. It will be the first event like this we have participated in. We are particularly interested in introducing our photogravure process to our local public. So I began to look through my enormous photo library to find an attractive image to transform into a photoetching. The kitchen at Danièle Mazet-Delpeurch's house immediately caught my eye. We took a cooking course with Danièle in 2005 and the weekend yielded a number of wonderful photos, and inspired my art work over the next year. This memory has made me stop to consider again, why the place of food and the experience of eating is so different in France than in the U.S. It also put me in mind of the very funny comparison between Paris, France and Paris, Kentucky, which made it's way around the internet a few years ago. Of course it's by no means true that every American is obese and certainly not every French person is slim, but it is true that the U.S. ranks absolute first in the world for obesity, while France ranks 23rd. About one out of every three people in the U.S. are considered obese, while less than one in ten are obese in France. Still, this is a huge increase for France and this number is staggering to them. It is considered a real national crisis. The problem particularly effects student-age children, who have picked up American's bad habits of fast and junk food eating. When a new report came out revealing a significant increase in child obesity, the government immediately took action. They outlawed anything in vending machines at schools other than fresh apples. It was quite impressive to see how quickly and efficiently this occurred. It's also interesting to note that France ranks 9th in the world for life-expectancy while the U.S. ranks 50th. That seems rather remarkable when you consider that 30% of the French population smoke, as opposed to less than 20% in the U.S. Another bit of news which is not often discussed in the U.S. media, is that the World Health Organization ranks France's Health Care as the best in the world. The U.S. is ranked 37th. The French do get a lot of things right, and cooking, eating and their relationship to food is one of them. The good health follows naturally. Some people have theorized that the U.S. dysfunction with food and the lack of importance given to really enjoying our meals, may have its root in our Puritan history. We were taught not to appreciate some of those basic, sensual aspects of life. Even while the French eat quite a bit more fat than the average American, they don't gain weight nearly as fast. People have been talking about this paradox for years, trying to understand what makes the difference. Some people believe that it's the red wine/resveratrol factor, while others just see it as a completely different philosophy of eating and food. One also has to consider the time factor. French people are horrified to hear that children in U.S. schools get only a half hour for lunch. All school children in France are provided sit-down meals at lunch. It is considered essential for their concentration and success in class. Family meals in France are very significant and lengthy. Even small children are taught to sit at table for very extended periods. A gathering of friends and family think nothing of taking four hours at table for Sunday lunch. Lunch hour is often two hours even for working people. I read about Danièle's cooking course in the Dordogne in a 2003 Travel & Leisure article. I saved it for a couple of years as it captivated me. Two and a half years later, I finally gave Danièle a call and arranged a time for our visit. When we took our class with her, she first took us to the large and bustling market in Brive-la-Gaillarde to purchase ingredients. Markets are located in every nook and cranny of France. People naturally look for fresh food and a personal relationship with their suppliers. Danièle taught us how to look at food, and of course she knew which vendors to trust. The standard of perfection in the U.S. for fruit, for instance, always seems to be big, bright and blemish-free. The first time we returned to the U.S. we were amazed at how big and red the strawberries were. We had forgotten. But that size and color are a bit artificial and the taste is effected and the nutrition value diminished when the food is grown for consistency of size and color primarily. Danièle bought us some peaches which were small, malformed and pock-marked. They are called pêche de vinge, and they were incredibly sweet and delicious. Another important point in Danièle's approach to cooking, is to use fresh food in season and to plan meals around the bounty of your own garden. Our meal together featured fresh figs prominently, as they were ripe on her tree. Danièle is a natural cook, who has had so much daily experience, year-in and year-out, that she has an intuitive understanding of how to put a meal together. She follows no recipes, and she makes no mistakes. Cooking is still an endlessly rewarding and satisfying activity to her and she shares her knowledge with her students in the most loving way. The time in her kitchen flew past. We all helped prepare our several-course meal and more than gathering recipes, we learned to pay attention. It was a basic and sensual experience, we received great pleasure from each step. After we had prepared our meal, we sat down together to enjoy it at Danièle's table, which she set with superb care. This one short weekend has lived long in my memory as one of the most charming and nurturing experiences of recent times. After spending the morning working on this blog post, I took my usual lunch break to read the International Herald Tribune. In today's paper was an op-ed piece by Roger Cohen, called Advantage France. He and I are definitely thinking alike. At Maison Conti we also offer a cooking course with the lovely Alexandra Tallen.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Last weekend we had another etching course at Maison Conti. This time the class was offered in French, which presented me with the challenge of learning quite a bit of new vocabulary. It was what they call here, "un coup de pied aux fesses", (a kick in the butt) for my advancement in the French language, which does not come easily to me at all. The other interesting aspect of the course was that the participants had never done any printmaking before, so they were brave new souls and it was important to get down to basic explanations and to design projects which would allow everyone to have success. Being on the spot to create beautiful works of realistic art is something that can fill people with anxiety. Many people have had such bad experiences with drawing that they have not picked up a pencil and had a crack at making a drawing since they were children, so the idea of drawing on a piece of metal is not necessarily a happy one. I feel as if my main responsibility as a workshop leader is to be sure that everyone enjoys themselves! And nothing is more enjoyable than creating successful art work. One of the reasons I enjoy etching so much is that the results are often very rich and beautiful, just by nature of the process itself. One does not need to be a talented artist in order to make beautiful etchings. The participants were Michèle, who is French-Canadian, but now lives in Paris with her husband Philippe. She is a writing instructor and discovered our course in a general brochure which advertises our area of France and some of its activities. Although she had no idea about the process, it sounded interesting to her and she signed up to come. Philippe spent several years as a French diplomat and has literally traveled the world. His collection of photographs chronicles these years. He is a very fine amateur photographer and because of this, I suggested that I could organize the class so that I would teach them a little etching and my husband Rick could show them how we create our photogravures . They seemed excited by the idea. Because it is always more fun to have at least four people in a class, I invited our friends Françoise and Bernard to join in. They graciously accepted. Françoise is a writing instructor, but also an accomplished potter and enjoys artistic pursuits. I think she is the only one in the class who has some adult experience in drawing. Bernard is the kind of person who is competent at just about everything, and really enjoys figuring out how things are put together and function. He also turns out, to my surprise, to be a clever artist. Françoise and Bernard also launched and manage an organization in Mali, which sponsors a village there. They visit Africa often. Like Michèle and Philippe, they are world travelers. It was a very harmonious group of people, which, of course makes it all so much more interesting for everyone. I began in the morning with an explanation of the soft ground technique, which allows one to make an impression of natural objects into a protective varnish and then etch the impressed images in a very delicate way. No drawing necessary! Everyone was able to not only get the idea right away, but went right to creating their own designs, using dried grasses, fabric, lace, leaves, crumpled paper and various other found objects. It was rather delightful that everyone seemed to adopt the same can-do spirit and worked at exactly the same pace. Before lunch, we had designed, etched and printed four very charming images, one for each participant. After lunch Rick took over with the photogravure portion of the instruction, and people really came alive with this technique. People had brought their photos and we had a great deal of satisfaction looking at the lovely images and choosing the best for the technique. Bernard chose an old photo of his great grand father, a seaman from Brittany. We first made a transparancy and then exposed the image onto a photo sensitive plate. Rick has built a box with a UV light which can expose the transparancy which is placed over the photosensitive plate and pressed under glass, to keep it flat. There are various steps to follow, but the technique is quite simple and anyone can have success, once they understand and follow the necessary steps. Once exposed to the light, the photosensitive plate is developed in a water bath. It's quite magical to watch the image emerge. The plate is inked and printed in the traditional way. We all gather around when a plate comes off the press. It's the exciting moment when you see what you've created! Bernard was pleased with the results from his plate, and plans to give a copy of the print to each of his brothers and sisters. Of course a handmade print of old family photos, impressed onto luscious all-cotton paper, is a fabulous and unique and very personal gift! We worked for two days in the studio and each participant went away with three images. After we were finished, we relaxed together on the terrace before people left for home. On Sunday afternoon, when the Place was completely empty of other vehicles, two beautiful old antique cars rolled up in front of the house. It seemed a fitting end to a very aesthetic weekend!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

La Boulangère

I have started a project of creating a collection of etchings of the notable people of our village. It is only right to begin with the baker, Madame Guedet. As all boulangers in almost any village in France, she is the heart of the community. If you want to know what's going on in the area, if you have any questions about procedures, coming events or even the health or activities of other residents, the baker is there to tell you. She knows who's getting married, who's on vacation, who is expecting, who got into a fight with whom. She hands out advice, gossip and counsel with every baguette and croissant. One gets an ear-full at the same time as a bag-full. For our bed and breakfast, we depend upon Madame Guedet each day for fresh bread. Her work begins at about 4AM, when she and her husband arrive at the bakery to prepare the morning offerings. Bread is baked freshly throughout the day. We visit her before breakfast, at lunch, and if we serve dinner, in the evening as well. Most all the villagers patronize her shop several times a day. She is constantly busy and one never arrives at the boulangerie without meeting neighbors. A transaction is not a perfunctory event. One must take the time to exchange a few words, opinions, stories and pleasantries. Besides, if you don't share your family events with Mme Guedet, how can she pass them on to your neighbors? When we first moved to town we remarked to someone that we didn't know anyone. They answered us, "You may not know them, but they know you." Better the baker should learn your news directly from you. The relationship with your baker is one of the most important ones you'll have in a small village like ours. The variety of breads a single baker makes in France is quite impressive. Michael Fenichel took this gorgeous photo of a boulangerie in Paris, with all the many sizes, shapes, colors and forms available from one small shop. It is well worth visiting Michael's site to see the original at a much larger size. Our region of France is particularly known for it's wonderful bread. Gourmet Magazine did an entire article about the Baguette du Perche in the March 2008 issue. Near us is a very special baker who creates this wonderful bread in his ancient stone oven. All his bread is made with sour dough starter that has been active for countless generations. His flour is grown organically and locally and milled by his cousin. He supplies bread for local markets, restaurants and to individuals who order directly from his farm, but he has no boulangerie of his own. He does not bake his bread every day, but when he does, he makes a couple of hundred loaves at the same time. He builds a roaring fire in his ancient brick oven, built into a hillside, early in the morning. In the fire he lays some large stones. After several hours, the fire burns itself out and the oven is very warm and ready to accept the loaves of bread which have been rising on long wooden tables. He pops all 200 loaves into the oven at the same moment. Warm stones are distributed between the uncooked bread, the wooden door is closed and the bread is left to cook. We have watched him while he takes the baked bread from the oven, raps each one with his knuckles to hear if it is done or not and then arranges the loaves in large handmade baskets to take to market. It's one of the most satisfying sights imaginable! In Paris there is at least one boulangerie every few blocks. Fauch0n, that palace of over-priced gastronomy, in the Place de la Madeleine, has a lively bread counter. But my favorite is Boulangerie Secco in the 7th arrondissement. There it is well-worth the wait to purchase some of their crusty breads, madeleines or tartes. This is also the favorite bakery of the cooking teacher at Maison Conti, who rides the metro for 40 minutes each way to purchase bread for her family. The importance of the baker in French culture was expressed most lovingly in the very famous novel written by Jean Giono La Femme du Boulanger - The Baker's Wife, and turned into a movie in 1938 by Marcel Pagnol. (Jean Giono was also the author of The Man Who Planted Trees.) The Baker's Wife tells the story of the village boulanger who becomes distraught when his young wife runs off with someone else. He can no longer concentrate well-enough to bake and so the town is without its bread. The town's people unite together in desperation and go after the wife convincing her to return to her husband. Harmony is returned when the couple is once again happily reunited. All is put to rights when the oven is fired up and the bread is on offer! Everyone is content.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Between Meals

It started after reading a charming editorial by one of my favorite NYT op-ed contributors, Verlyn Klinkenborg, entitled Some Thoughts on the Pleasure of Being a Re-Reader. In the piece the writer gives a rather long list of books that he re-reads every year. Among his favorite authors is A. J. Liebling, a former journalist for the New Yorker who died in 1963. Since I happened to have Between Meals, an Appetite for Paris by Liebling sitting, as yet unread, on my shelves, I pulled it down and read it from cover to cover. The book chronicles Liebling's student days in Paris during the 1920s and is basically an homage to French cooking, as it seems Liebling ate his way through the time he lived there. I have a serious weakness for books about France in general, but Paris in particular. If the book happens to have a focus on the food, then I probably own it. I may not have read it, but it's there on the shelf. Among the numerous books about French food I have read are A Goose in Toulouse, by Mort Rosenblum, the classic The Food of France, by Waverley Root, in which he divides France into three culinary sections based on the type of grease used in cooking: butter, oil or pork/goose fat and almost everything by M.F.K. Fisher. I've even read quite a lot of The Physiology of Taste, by Brillat-Savarin, who inspired them all. Yet I hadn't read any A.J. Liebling before this summer. I'm also a bit of a sucker for stories of Paris in the early part of the twentieth century. Has any city in history ever been such a symbol of freedom, creativity or the good life? Is there any more romantic image than Paris in the 20s? Has any other city ever inspired so many songs, books or poems? Has any city been a safe-haven to more foreigners? At the turn of the century American artists came to Paris by the scores, to learn at the feet of the French Impressionist and Expressionist painters. Mary Cassatt was the most famous of the lot, but there were many more who achieved prominence and who launched the American Impressionist school of painting. Then came jazz musicians and entertainers. Black performers particularly appreciated the sense of independence and acceptance they discovered in Paris. Josephine Baker was celebrated in Paris in a way she could not have been in New York at that time. Of course the twenties brought writers from all over the world as well. Samuel Beckett found the environment of Paris nurtured his creativity. The same was true for his fellow countryman, James Joyce, who of course couldn't even get his books published in his native Ireland. American writers like Henry Miller, Sherwood Anderson and Ezra Pound found their voices in the City of Light. Gertrude Stien, said "America is my country and Paris is my hometown". She was just one of many Americans who found something in Paris that they could not find at home. Certainly Ernest Hemingway was shaped by the years he spent in Paris. His Movable Feast, which has just been reissued this year, and rather controverisally edited by his grandson, is a wonderful recounting of the 20s in Paris. In my view it's the best thing he ever wrote. Almost all the books written in the 20s about Paris, mention the café culture and rhapsodize about the meals. Food was an integral part of the French experience. A J. Liebling was living in the Latin quarter while Hemmingway and other fellow American writers were populating Montparnasse. He says "The Americans in Montparnasse, sitting at their tables in front of Le Sélect and talking at each other, reminded me of monkeys on a raft." Liebling's views are certainly not in the main-stream. And while he never achieved the kind of acclaim that many other American writers of his generation did, he is a real writer's writer. Reading his sentences is like tasting the meals he so lovingly describes. He famously said of himself "I can write faster than anyone who can write better and better than anyone who can write faster." Between Meals is a very enjoyable read! Liebling certainly expresses some notions about Paris, food and women that one doesn't often hear. For one thing he begins the book by extolling the virtues of a big appetite. He regrets the current fashion in women's figures and praises the large, round and buxom women of his parent's generation. He regards the diminuation in the number of courses at the table (he prefers at least six) as a possible health crisis, as he postulates that losing one's big appetite is the beginning of a descent into death. I got the sense reading him that here is a true glutton. It was a lot of fun to read the book therefore, since gluttony is particularly frowned upon in our time and gluttons so often are over looked and misunderstood. Liebling marks the high point in French cuisine as the early 20th century, before the first war. He says that its decline was already beginning in the 20s, especially effected by the flapper figure and the fear of fat. Julia Child also marks that prejudice against butter which occurred during the mid-twentieth century, as really the death knell of fine dining. Even if Paris is not the same creative mecca it was in the early part of last century, and even if French cooking is no longer the only fine cuisine in the world, Americans still flock to Paris. There are 16,000 Americans who live full time in Paris. There is the American Hospital, the American Cathedral, the American Library and even a store called Thanksgiving where you can buy all foods American. When you walk down the street in Paris, 1 out of every 125 people you pass on the street was born in America. In Saint Germain des Pres English is heard almost as much as French.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Fête Médiévale

Our little village of Montmirail is usually very quiet indeed. No more than 300 people live here and often it's just as quiet as if one were in the middle of the countryside. There is absolutely no light pollution, for example, and at night we can see the milky way from our windows. But once a year, the first weekend in August, there is a large Medieval fair which lasts for two days and brings three thousand people into town. Atelier Conti opens its doors and we have more visitors in an afternoon than during the rest of the year. Montmirail is a wonderful location for the re-creation of the middle ages. It has changed very little since those days. We are rated as a "petite cité de caractère" which means there is nothing to distract from the sense of days long past. We don't even have over-head power lines and no modern buildings to distract from the charm. The castle grounds are open to the public and lots of tents and various activities are set up. The town's people dress in costume. Demonstrations of ancient crafts and trades are given by genuine experts. Archery is a favorite activity for young and old alike. Children are treated to various distractions and games. And of course there is always lots of food! On Saturday evening there is a grand feast with Medieval food, drink and utensils, very wonderfully executed by the local folk. But the best event of all is donated by the family who live in the castle. They offer a fantastic display of fireworks to music. It is made to look as if the castle is in the middle of a war. It's tremendously exciting and impressive. We all clap when it's over.