Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Blue Train, The Orient Express, and Other Night Trains in Paris

The first chapter of Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper by Andrew Martin (published 2017) is titled "The Blue Train," and it's all about Paris trains, Paris railroad stations, old disused railroad tracks visible in odd bits of Paris parks, and how all this has changed over the long history of the railroad. Later chapters also include voyages beginning in Paris, and descriptions of a variety of other European cities and their stations.

When it came to the trains themselves, the author's focus is on night trains -- especially sleeping cars. He writes:
"An article on the Lonely Planet website once described Paris as ‘the omphalos’ of sleeper trains, which was just the right word I thought (once I’d looked it up), and part of the attraction of the sleepers for me is that they start from my favourite city." (p. 26).
Somehow I did know that omphalos means belly button. And I learned as well that it referred specifically to "the navel of the world," a particular stone at the Temple of Delphi in Ancient Greece. But that's a digression, though it does fit with today as Wordy Wednesday.

Paris is always the center of something, isn't it!

Martin is especially interested in a particular train company, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et du Tourisme, which owned a number of particularly famous and often luxurious sleeping cars. Wagons-Lits were in use by French and other Continental railroad lines on many renowned train lines including the Orient Express. They dominated the sleeping car business from the late 19th century until around the 1980s.

These iconic trains were featured in many cultural works. "The first novel to exploit the racy reputation of the Orient Express was The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, published in 1925." (p. 152). Much  more lastingly famous novels and films followed, with authors like Graham Greene, Georges Simenon, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, and Agatha Christie, and even a ballet titled "Le Train Bleu" in 1924, "performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with music by Darius Milhaud, story by Jean Cocteau, costumes by Coco Chanel and curtain by Pablo Picasso." (p. 38). In the chapter on the Orient Express, Martin points out that the Gare de l’Est “is the setting, for example, of both Murder on the Orient Express and From Russia with Love.” (p. 133).

Paintings of railroad-related subjects in Paris is another of Martin's interests. I found the descriptions of some of the paintings especially intriguing, so I looked them up. Here are some of the works along with Martin's comments:

Manet, The Railroad.
Martin writes: "The Pont de L’Europe has often been a vantage point for painters. In 1873 Édouard Manet painted The Railway, the composition showing a woman and a small girl in front of some severe black railings. Beyond the railings is large-scale modernity – the bridge, the tracks into St Lazare, the new flats overlooking those tracks – but all is confused by a cloud of steam. The little girl is interested in the scene, but the woman has turned her back on it, apparently in despair." (p. 28).

Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe.
Martin writes: "Zola himself made Gare St Lazare the centrepiece of his novel, La Bête humaine. This is a hysterical tale of sex and violence, symbolised by the pounding of the engines between St Lazare and Le Havre, with which all the characters are connected." The cover of one edition of this novel is the painting "Le Pont de l'Europe" by Caillebotte, he points out. "There is a strolling flâneur, perhaps a depiction of Caillebotte himself. He is possibly eyeing up the man looking down on the station. The woman walking alongside the flâneur has been interpreted as a prostitute. It’s unlikely that both interpretations could be true. A dog is heading purposefully over the bridge in the opposite direction, and doubtless it, too, is going off to have sex."  (p. 29).

Claude Monet, The Gare St-Lazare
Martin writes: "In the late 1870s Claude Monet painted images of the same bridge and station. Both he and Manet followed Zola’s injunction to ‘find the poetry of stations as their fathers found that of forests and rivers’. But locomotives generated scenes that had something in common with forests and rivers: a fluid, organic element, arising from the play of light in the shifting steam." (pp. 28-29).

Besides discussing trains in film, literature and art, Martin describes quite a few of his own railroad experiences. In 2015-2016 he tried to travel on the few sleeper cars that still remained in service, especially a memorable night where the voyage was cancelled and he ended up sleeping on the train while it was parked in the station in Paris. I had never thought much about the Paris railroad stations, other than the re-purposed Gare D'Orsay, now a splendid museum, and the Gare de Lyon where my purse was once snatched. As he begins each over-night journey, Martin describes the current state and the history of these stations: "The Parisian stations were polished and set like so many jewels by Baron Haussmann, architect-protégé of that great rail enthusiast, Napoleon III. (p. 193).

Illustration from Night Trains: "A Wagons-Lits dining car, as burnished
to perfection for the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Note the lamp shades,
interestingly suggestive of French knickers." (p. 248).
There definitely was lots of luxury back in the real rail travel days! This tradition eroded as the trains became less and less desirable. The dining cars on these French-managed trains were of course legendary for their food, their atmosphere, and their decor. The author contrasts the former opulence with the pathetic food service he experienced on the twenty-first century trains he traveled on. He wrote:
"The head of the restaurant car was the maître d’hôtel, and crammed inside the kitchen was a brigade de cuisine, with a chef de cuisine in charge (a man often destined, in the first half of the twentieth century, to be headhunted by one of the better European hotels). He supervised an under-chef, a saucier and a plongeur, or washer-up. There would also be a couple of serveurs, or waiters." (pp. 15-16). 
"Dinner on the original journey was served an hour and a half after departure – at 8pm. The restaurant car incorporated a gentlemen’s smoking salon with all the European newspapers, and there was further expensive marquetry, with scrollwork, cornices and gilded metal flowers protruding, and ‘rather garish’... paintings. The lighting was by gigantic –yet mellow –gas chandeliers. The meal involved nine courses: soup, lobster, oysters, caviar, fish, game, cakes, sorbets and cheeses." (p. 142).
Sleeping cars on trains starting in Paris went out of service for many reasons. The Orient Express lines became unworkable after World War II when the Iron Curtain, specifically in Bulgaria, cut off some of the routes. After that, air travel made long international overnight train voyages unappealing. Finally, the very fast trains that enable travel from Paris to French cities in only a few hours left almost nobody wanting to take any overnight trains. The end!

I wanted to share these Paris train stories with "Paris in July," a blogging event going on this month.

Note: images of artworks are from Wikipedia and the website of the British Museum.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Culinary Historians' American Foods


This afternoon was the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor summer dinner. The theme of this event was "A Seasonal Farm Meal from 19th Century Michigan." Quite a few participants have deep roots in Michigan, and created amazing contributions based on their own families' traditional recipes. The rest of us did what we could! Here are some of the dishes:

Candied citrus peel. Maybe my favorite of all.
Chicken pot pie. It included delicious pieces of chicken with vegetables
and white sauce.
This is obviously a well-loved recipe!
These peaches were very good!
Stewed fruit and molasses cakes.
German potato salad with bacon.
Rhubarb pie. The baker explained that it was made with rhubarb only.
No custard. No strawberries! 
Salt pork with potatoes. I didn't get to taste this one, but there was a pretty
good dish of cabbage with salt pork that I did try. Next to it: my
contribution, which was cornbread.
Here are the members and guests, just starting to serve themselves. Around 30 people attended the dinner.
At this end of the table you can see green salad, watermelon salad, and salmon mousse.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

A Sad Day for Rosé

Drinking rosé (as well as beer) with burgers and brats in the heat of the afternoon on July 4, 2018.
Like many Americans, we've been drinking rosé wines from France to cool off in the heat of this summer. At least we thought they were from France! If you have been drinking French rosé too, you  should read this: "How could 10 million bottles of cheap Spanish rosé be passed off as French? Blame America" in the Washington Post. From the article:
"France’s consumer fraud authority confirmed July 9 that over the past two years, unscrupulous wine merchants have passed off as many as 70,000 hectoliters — the equivalent of 10 million bottles — of cheap Spanish wine as more-expensive French rosé."

My first reaction was to try to find out if we were being fooled by the several bottles of wine that we've found very refreshing -- you can see one such bottle in our cellar in the photo, waiting to be enjoyed. Although I've read several articles in both the American and the French press, I'm suspicious that no one has yet named names so one can know which wines to buy (at French prices) and which ones to avoid (because they are really the much cheaper products of Spanish vineyards). All I know is that four French producers have been fined for the fraud, which affects as much as a quarter of rosé sold in France has been mislabeled.

According to website France-Amérique: "Criminal procedures were opened for unfair commercial practice. In the South of France, a Narbonne wine merchant who 'disguised' over 4 million bottles is now facing up to two years in prison and at least 300,000 euros in fines."

Another article (link) explains a bit more about how the French consumers have been misled: "The scam is all in the labelling. Sometimes the origin of the wine is hidden on the label, especially in rosé wine sold in boxes, while other labels will have a traditional French fleur de lys flower on the label and say 'bottled in France.' But that doesn't mean that the wine is French." Other misleading details: images of a French chateau or a French-looking village.

The French journal Le Parisien (link), in an interview with Ludovic Roux, a wine grower and head of a cooperative of producers in the Aude, provides a discussion of the challenges of trying to police fraudulent behavior. "La francisation, c’est de la fraude pure et dure. Mais pour les pratiques commerciales trompeuses, les choses sont moins claires. Nous voudrions qu’elles le soient à l’avenir!" -- or in English: Mislabeling wine as French -- "Frenchification" -- is fraud, hard-core fraud. But for dealing with deceptive commercial practices, things aren't so clear. We wish that they would become clear in the future.

This is the first year we've been drinking rosé in many years. We had moved on to reds and whites not only from France but also from California, South America, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, and a few other more obscure producers. But the large selection of rosé from just about all these places tempted us back to this hot-weather favorite, which is at the moment quite a fad here -- including a variety of "two-buck Chuck" from Trader Joe's, though the two-buck prices are kind of over these days.

We bought a bottle or two of rosé at Trader Joe's,
but chose a more expensive one than this!

Well, I hope you have a happy celebration for Bastille Day today -- and may all your wine be worth what you paid for it!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

S’Mores Heresy

Every Girl Scout knows that the fundamental starting point for s'mores is to toast marshmallows.
However, Len says, one thing Girl Scouts don't have is a mustache. How do you eat s'mores with a mustache?
Instead of making a sandwich, we broke up the graham crackers and
softened the chocolate in the microwave to prepare ourselves for easier eating.
Eating with a spoon is much easier even for a mustache-less person. This close-up of a bite with toasted marshmallow,
melty chocolate, and bite-sized graham cracker piece also shows the sky reflected in the spoon.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Paris, Where Intellectuals and Tourists Never Cease to Roam

You may think of Paris as a wonderful place for tourists, with its bookstalls along the Seine, with its tempting outdoor spaces in parks and cafés, with its classic restaurants and pastry shops, with its great museums and outdoor art, with its beautiful boulevards and historic buildings, and with its eternal presence in art, film, and literature.

Paris definitely offers a space where tourists flourish. Three books I've been reading recently also provide insight into the way that Paris has served as the intellectual nerve center of France, a center that influenced the intellectual life and development of the Western world for centuries. Each of these books could easily be the subject of a long review, and in fact, they've all been reviewed at length in the best publications! I'm just going to present a few ideas and quotes from each one, reflecting what I find interesting about them.

Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950 by Agnès Poirier, published February, 2018.

Life under the Nazi occupation of Paris was brutal. Food was scarce. Artistic freedom of speech, freedom for public performances, and freedom for publishing didn't exist. The price of even a bit of liberty in these areas was often to concede much to the occupiers of Paris. Yet many of the inhabitants of Paris managed to continue their lives in cafes, bars, and other spaces both public and private.

Poirier concentrates on the lives of some of the most famous inhabitants of Paris in the decade of the 1940s. She describes the lives of the literati like Camus, Sartre, deBeauvoir, Arthur Koestler, Samuel Beckett, and of New Yorker writers A.J. Liebling and Janet Flanner. She talks about actors and performers like Boris Vian (both a musician and a writer), Juliette Greco, Simone Signoret, François Truffaut, Marlon Brando, and at the end of the decade rising stars like Brigitte Bardot.

Poirier especially portrays the role of Jacques Jaujard, the deputy head of the French National Museums, who succeeded just before the Nazi occupation in hiding the works of art from the Louvre. I was especially interested in the Mona Lisa, which was hidden at the Château de la Treyne, in the Périgord region "where André Chamson, an archivist-paleographer by training, a novelist by métier, and an improvised keeper of France’s treasures by force of circumstance, lived with his family." (p. 47).

With the Liberation in 1944, many freedoms were restored, including free elections: "French women had cast their vote for the first time in the first national election since before the war in October 1945." (p. 136). At the same time, victims of Nazi deportations began to return from concentration camps, and the intellectuals of Paris realized the extent of the torture, the consequences that these absentees had faced, and the large number who hadn't survived. Also, as the decade progressed, Sartre and deBeauvoir became celebrities, and many of the more obscure people who appeared in Poirier's story became more successful and famous.

Besides the immediate and terrible discoveries just after the war, Poirier describes the growing number of Americans who came to Paris, especially those such as Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Norman Mailer who studied on the GI bill. As writer Art Buchwald put it: "If all the GIs in Paris who are supposed to be enrolled went to class, they would need a soccer stadium to accommodate them." (p. 231).

For the post-war survivors, food and consumer products remained scarce for several years after the war. The impact of the Marshall Plan was one of the interesting subjects of Poirier's story. Also, those like Simone deBeauvoir who were privileged to travel abroad brought all sorts of unavailable goods back. For example:
"Simone de Beauvoir, returning from her trip to Portugal and Spain... brought back in her suitcases a hundred pounds of groceries— ham, chorizo, Algarve cakes, sticky sugar, eggs, tea, real coffee, and real chocolate— and was handing them out generously to friends, lovers, and strangers. She had purchased many clothes, too, folkloric sweaters, Spanish scarves, and multicolored fishermen’s shirts from Faro in Portugal." (p. 83). 
But finally, supplies of food were restored: "Christmas 1949 in Paris had been the first in a decade without food restrictions, and Parisians spent all the extra money they had on food. Not for a quarter century had the food markets of Paris been fuller or more tempting. In the charcuteries Janet Flanner spent a long time studying “turkey pâté, truffled pigs’ trotters, chicken in half-mourning, whole goose livers, boar’s snout jelly, and fresh truffles in their fragile bronze husks.” (p. 289).

When I first read about this new book, I thought it sounded like a repeat of many other treatments of the famous intellectuals of mid-century Paris, but I loved reading it and learned all kinds of fascinating new things.

The End of the French Intellectual by Shlomo Sand, published April, 2018, translated from French by by David Fernbach. 

Author Shlomo Sand -- a native of Israel with a doctorate from a French university -- supports his belief that the French intellectual tradition is now over and past by offering an extremely detailed history of intellectual life in Paris. He points out that Paris was not just the center, but the only home of French literature, art, and learning. He writes:
"Any attempt to decipher the role of intellectuals in France must start from the following postulate: the public sphere here is more homogeneous and more centralized than in any other liberal democracy, and the origin of this cultural and linguistic homogeneity lies in the long effect of absolute monarchy." (Kindle Locations 300-302). 
Idolizing of the French intellectuals of the mid-20th century, such as Sartre and deBeauvoir, was Sand's early experience, and one of the main points of his book is to show how disillusioned he became as he learned more about their actions during the Nazi occupation of Paris and their later success at revising the way history views them. He judges them harshly.

To quote more from Sand which is relevant to the theme of Paris in July:
"The particular status of Parisian intellectuals is a phenomenon that has been repeatedly studied. In a society where the level of language itself amounts to an ideology, and cultural distinction still competes with social distinction, the ‘producers of high culture’ have always enjoyed eminent privileges.

"We might say that in the French capital, intellectuals have inherited both the role of court jester, able always to say whatever was in their minds without being punished, and that of priest, serving as intermediary between the believer and divine truth. Nor has France ever forgotten that, since the great epoch of the Enlightenment, the prestige capital built up by men of letters made Paris for many years the cultural epicentre of the Western world. It could even be maintained that in Paris today, intellectuals have long been the last aristocrats. And if the monarchist tradition has been replaced by a popular thirst for authoritarian and paternalist presidents, a deep nostalgia for knights and musketeers, seemingly foreign to bourgeois values, has also contributed to the prestige of this modern ‘nobility of mind’, who confront dangers and brandish their sharpened pens to defend truth and justice." (Kindle Locations 276-285).
"The intellectual currents that have stamped their mark on Western culture, such as symbolism, surrealism, existentialism or structuralism, were not born in France but in its capital. These artistic expressions and magnificent currents of thought, like many others, appeared in the Parisian press, in periodicals established in Paris and in books that were published there." (Kindle Locations 318-320). 
I found the book intriguing, but I felt it was too detailed about some of the political fights of late 19th and early 20th century intellectuals. At the end of the day, I'm not sure I find his depiction of betrayals and bad faith among the Existentialists to be entirely convincing. Frankly, his introduction about how he became disillusioned was the part I liked the most.

Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation 1940-1944 by Charles Glass, published 2010.

The author's introduction summarizes this book as follows:
"Nearly 30,000 Americans lived in or near Paris before the Second World War. Those who refused to leave were, paraphrasing Dickens, the best and the worst of America. Like the French, some collaborated, others resisted. The Germans forced some into slave labour. At least one was taken back to the United States to face a trial for treason. Americans in Paris under the occupation were among the most eccentric, original and disparate collection of their countrymen anywhere – tested as few others have been before or since. This is their story." (p. 1). 
But I've said enough about these books.

Bloggers participating (as I am) in this month's "Paris in July" blog event have written about their love of long walks in Paris, their awe at monuments such as the cathedral of Notre Dame, their favorite French cookbooks, and their enjoyment of recent novels set in Paris (many of them written in English by American or British authors), as well as of their consciousness of Paris in history. Many connect with the Paris of artists like Picasso in Montmartre, writers like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Latin Quarter, or film settings like that of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I think I've made the point that there's always been another Paris besides the one you think you know.

Monday, July 09, 2018

French Food Now

Ingredients for my César Salad, following the recipe in Cuisine et Vins de France.
Garlic, parmesan cheese, eggs. lemon, lettuce, mustard, olive oil, anchovies.
Mushrooms and herbs in picture were ready for another dish for our dinner.

CVF illustration.
A few days ago, I described the French cooking magazine Cuisine et Vins de France, which has published for over 90 years (link to post). For a long time, CVF was pretty highbrow, but it's now owned by the women's magazine Marie Claire, and seems to me to be targeted to fairly ordinary home cooks. I was especially interested in trying to learn about what these normal people are cooking and eating these days, as opposed to the very trendy or elaborate cuisines that are still being served in French restaurants that tourists frequent. On past trips, we've eaten at the homes of various friends so we've had an idea of the difference. French people of our acquaintance are usually much more interested in fine cooking than most Americans, but do not necessarily cook as if they were restaurant chefs -- obviously!

I mentioned that I was hoping to try a couple of recipes from their current online offerings. First I tried "La vraie recette de la salade césar" -- that is, "The authentic recipe for césar salad." The image of the dish from the magazine is above. For my second choice: a very simple dish of turkey cooked with mango slices and green peppercorns. In showing these, I've interspersed some of our other French or French-style dishes from the weekend as well.

Tossing the salad, using the online recipe on the iPad.

This was definitely the classic American dish -- as replicated from the popular French magazine. Evidently, French cooks now like to try exotic foods. Another not-really-French recipe from CVF that is on my list: Thai beef salad.
Second course: mushrooms on toast with herbs from our garden.
At the same time that I was making the salad, I made a second course: mushrooms on toast. The French are much more inclined to serve several courses in a home-style meal than we Americans are. They tend not to put nearly as many different dishes on the plate at one time, but to eat slowly and in a predictable sequence. The slower pace is sometimes thought to be one reason why French people are less likely to be obese than Americans, but that's not a for-sure explanation.

French home cooks in the past virtually never baked their own bread.
Their local bakeries were too good and their ovens were too small.
But Len is working hard on his French-bread skills.

 Another CVF Recipe for Another Dinner

Ingredients for a very simple main course: turkey breast, green peppercorns, mango slices, vinegar, salt.
On the screen, you can see the original presentation from CVF.
CVF illustration.
The recipe title in French: "Magrets de canard aux mangues," that is duck breast with mangoes -- shown in the image from the magazine. I substituted a turkey breast from a local farmer because I couldn't find duck at the shop I went to.

I was impressed at such a good result from just four main ingredients: mango, turkey, vinegar, and green peppercorns! I had to add butter for frying the skinless turkey, which obviously has far less fat than duck with the skin on. Also, because the turkey was less moist, I degreased the pan with a splash of white wine -- not called for in the original.

My turkey and mango slices in the frying pan!
This was really delicious. When I find some duck breasts, I'll try the exact recipe. We love green peppercorns!

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Cuisine et Vins de France: A Classic French Cooking Magazine

The Summer 2018 edition of Cuisine et Vins de France, a very appealing French cooking magazine.
If you are on Facebook, you can "like" them and see several delectable photos per day of the
recipes from the magazine. (FB LINK HERE)
From a current issue: "La vraie recette de la salade césar."
"The authentic recipe for césar salad."
I have loved Cusine et Vins de France for many years. I discovered the magazine during one of our long stays in Paris in 1976, and I subscribed a few times in the 1970s and 1990. Founded in 1927, the magazine has a long history and included various well-known writers' work, including that of American cookbook author Richard Olney who wrote a column in the 1960s.

Current issues of CVF include many American foods, which are evidently popular in France. For summer, they include lots of fruit, especially apricots. Also: many pizza recipes, French classics like clafoutis, and lots of desserts. Later this week, I hope to try some of the recipes from either an old or a new issue of the magazine, and I'll post my results!

I thought I had recycled all my old cooking magazines, but last year when I cleaned the attic, I found one box that had survived. Here are some CVF covers and sample pages from this little hoard of magazines. I selected summer issues for most of these photos, to illustrate the foods and wines that they suggested for summer dining. 





The first issue I ever bought: March, 1976.
A sample menu for a summer dinner party, including recipes and tips for organizing.
In the 1970s, the interior of the magazine didn't have color photos. Now it does.

The French gourmand and cookbook author Robert Courtine (1910-1988) used to write a column
each month. (Unfortunately he was a collaborator in World War II, for which he spent time in prison.)
A photo illustrating crudites from one of the old magazines. There's oil all over the
page which suggests that I once followed this recipe.
I'm sharing this post with the summer blogging event called "Paris in July" hosted at the blog Thyme for Tea HERE. Around 30 bloggers from around the world have been reading novels set in Paris or other parts of France, finding photos from their past trips and arranging them in interesting ways, cooking French food, looking up French art work, and doing lots of other creative things to share with the group.

Friday, July 06, 2018