Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A FRENCH BREEZE THROUGH DALLAS

I've been running into more and more heady French people who have visited or are planning a trip to Texas--not for love or money, but for pure-D, as in Dallas, tourism.  They have to be prepared to rent a car and drive through Waring Blender-like traffic patterns, but the big horizon, fine contemporary architecture, citified cowboy culture, and mild climate beckon them to Dallas, the eighth largest city in the United States.







When my kicky Parisian architect friend returned from Big-D, he came back raving about the friendly and flashy city where the official slogan is "Live large. Think big." I'll say big;  indelibly marked in my memory of the early 1990's Dallas landscape is the image of a huge American flag, about the size of ten king-sized bedsheets, gloriously draped from the top ledge of a tall building. Everything is big in Dallas, including its urban arts district, which today is the largest in the nation, or the Galleria Mall, the epitome of  the upscale American shopping center, and tooted by USA Today as "one of the top ten places to spend it all." Its design was inspired by the famous Italian commercial mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele built in Milan in 1867, and seemed to be my French friend's favorite Dallas space.




The architectural landmark on the Dallas skyline that everyone wants to see from every angle is the photogenic Fountain Place Tower, built from 1983 thru 1986. (You might have already seen it on the Dallas television series, which by the way was a big hit with French television viewers, where it was portrayed as the Ewing Oil Building. ) It resembles a giant multi-faceted crystal, having a different profile from every direction, due to its unusual slanting sides. The 60-story skyscraper was designed by world-famous I.M. Pei, who is no stranger to downtown Dallas where he has realized other projects including the city hall and the symphony center. (Nor is he a stranger to Paris, where he designed the glass pyramid addition to the Louvre's courtyard.)





Dynamic Dallas is also a part of the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States, which includes Fort Worth, home of the Kimbell Art Museum--a fine example of architectural modernism and a reference for museum design. Constructed from 1967 thru 1972, the acclaimed building is the work of architect Louis Kahn. It's formed by a series of long parallel barrel vaults, each one open along the length of its crown where double curved skylights provide diffused natural light for optimal viewing of artwork. The museum which houses a small but select collection of European, Asian and Precolumbian works, also produces exceptional, world-class temporary exhibits. 





From 1994-1997 the Kimbell unabashedly flaunted the pedigree of its chief curator during that time, Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the French impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro. Another interesting tidbit about the museum is that in 1981 it purchased a painting that strongly resembled a work of the great 17th century  artist from Lorraine, Georges de La Tour. Because it was thought to be a copy, its price was much lower than an authentic Georges de La Tour would have been. The Kimbell bought the piece considering it to be a good deal for a beautiful work, regardless of who painted it. A wise decision, because later advanced identification methods proved it to be a real Texas-sized bargain and a true Georges de La Tour,  Le Tricheur à l'As de Trèfle.  (Cheater with the Ace of Clubs) A variant of the same painting, Le Tricheur à l'As de Carreau (Cheater with the Ace of Diamonds), is at the Louvre in Paris.







Muy bonito! Find luscious in-season fresh fruit and vegetables neatly stacked all in a row at the Dallas  Farmers Market, located downtown. Practically a drive-thru, it's a long hangar full of stands with parking in front of the vendor of your choice. (Don't forget, Dallas is extra roomy car country where distances separating two points can be far.) It's where the locals go and open 362 days a year. Extra sweet.







Photos

Text & photos ©2009 P.B.Lecron with the exception of photos of Kimbell Art Museum: ©2008 Kimbell Art Museum

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NOVEMBER 11, 2009

Remembering the Armistice; the end of WWI





Photo taken at the animal cemetery in Asnières-sur-Seine.

©2009 P.B. Lecron













Tuesday, November 10, 2009

MORE ON VERSAILLES STREET ART

A fine romance



If you're of a curious nature and still wondering about my earlier post, Versailles Streets: In the Mood for Art, and you like the delicate renderings of the infatuated couples that discreetly grace our city's pedestrian crosswalks and bike paths, then go to the artist's site by clicking here.


You'll be smitten and might want to have lunch in a Versailles restaurant, Chez Renaud, currently displaying a related expo, "Relations Amoureuses en Mileu Versaillais."  


Chez Renaud, 4 rue Philippe Dangeau, Versailles. Open noon every day except Sunday; open evenings Wednesday thru Saturday.



Monday, November 9, 2009

THE OTHER VERSAILLES by P.B. Lecron

 Trees and ease

Say "Versailles" and most think "château," but Versailles is also a city where the quality of life appeals to even the most hardened critics of the Ancient Regime's excesses. Louis XIV's innovative and harmonious urban planning is still a model three centuries after he first laid out its wide avenues and imposed building restrictions.

Historic preservation and controlled growth have given the town a look all its own. Unperturbedly classic, human in scale, Versailles has a very livable, old-fashioned aspect that its residents adore.





Modern urban amenities keep life simple and uncluttered: underground parking, buried electrical and telephone cables, and a highly developed public transportation with 37 city bus lines and five train stations. Today the tree is king and the city keeps careful track of all 180,000 of them; whenever one is to be cut down, it must be replaced.



It's inevitable that a provincial city which figures as a cultural counterweight to Paris and selected repeatedly by magazines as one of the best places to live, inspire clichés. And clichés abound about Versailles' 85,000 souls who go about their business as ten million visitors stream through the town yearly on their way to the château and park. "B.C.B.G." or "bon chic, bon genre," synomous with good taste and tradition, is a platitude for the archetypical Versaillais deemed to have a family of four or more well-behaved children dressed in navy blue with claudine collars or in scouting uniforms.




The cliché also calls for a wicker shopping cart--the indispensable accessory for going to the public market, which at Versailles is so packed with people that celebrities who shop there get lost in the crowd.  Be it "Old France" or "traditionalist," this is not a city where fashion elegance is a moral imperative; ostentation is generally avoided and low key is the local style.

Regardless of the conformist image, Versailles has space and oxygen to raise creative, cosmopolitan talent. Like filmmaker and master of intimate comedy, Bruno Podalydes and his brother Denis of the Comédie Française, or fashion designer, Agnés b, who grew up here. International trip-hop electronic duo of Air, Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, went to school together here, as did members of the pop-rock-soul-funk electronic group, Daft Punk. Then there's the singularly curious figure of the French hip-hop scene, the Klub des Loosers, an anonymous one-man act that local teenagers have called Versailles underground. His cult hit, "Born under the Sign of V" caricaturizes teenage disillusionment and boredom in Versailles. A common complaint, but as one youth quips, "We may not have a bowling alley or a mini-golf, but we can go sculling on the Grand Canal!"


Or if really bored, the kids can play the special Versailles edition of Monopoly. "Where are you going to install your hotels, in the Quartier Saint-Louis or the Quartier Notre-Dame? Good question, for a legendary gulf separates these prime neighborhoods. Mention it to long-time resident, Christine de Saint-Exupéry, countess and mother of four, and she knowingly smiles. "The Quartier Saint-Louis is more traditionalist than Notre-Dame; it's a city within a city and the people there feel they are more 'Versailles' than Versailles."


"As for traditionalists," she continues, "Versailles has a high concentration of old, aristocratic families. Half of the town is in the Bottin Mondain! It's a genealogical listing of French aristocracy--the bible of Versailles," she adds, grinning.



A quiet revolution is going on in Versailles as its officials seek to transform the city into the economic motor of the western Parisian area; Versailles Satory district is the new site for the Vestapolis research center to develop the car of the future. With these prospects and an increasing number of young Parisian families moving to Versailles seeking trees and ease, a socio-demographic mutation is guaranteed. Like gilding, will the Versailles sense of tradition rub off onto its new faces? That would be hard to predict, but with its rich history, Versailles can surely bank on a future in gold.


What was true then, is true today; the above text is a slightly revised republication of a magazine article I wrote which appeared in France Today, March 2006. 

To the list of new musical talent that has sprouted in Versailles, add the alternate rock group Phoenix. I like the comment a friend, Adah Rose Bitterbaum, from Washington, D.C. of the Studio Gallery had: "I saw a great rock 'n roll band from Versailles called Phoenix. They were adorable and good. Lots of Versailles Angst which is a real oxymoron."  


www.francetoday.com

Saturday, November 7, 2009

ECO-TIP: A FRENCH DOUCHE

La vie en vert

So you've been invited to stay with friends in France in a small apartment or perhaps a grand old villa, or maybe even a château. If you're not intimately familiar with the plumbing installation, then be a good guest, as well as do everyone else in the household a favor, and be parsimonious with the hot water!

Opting for a shower rather than a deep bath is obvious; what's less obvious is training yourself to shower in a more spartan, European way: after becoming thoroughly wet, turn off the water, then suds up, and only turn the water back on to rinse off quickly

Challenged plumbing or not, being frugal with water is a sound practice to follow wherever you might be. . .



Some French vocabulary:
gaspiller: to waste (water, food, time, resources)

gaspillage: waste (masculine noun)
savon: soap (masculin noun)
savonneux: sudsy (adjective)
pomme de douche: shower head (feminine noun)


Text & photo ©2009 P.B. Lecron


After posting this blog I received an email comment from a total but very sympatico stranger that I'd like to share: "Excellent, ce blog!  C'est trop drôle, le coup de la douche, c'est très exactement ce que j'ai passé mon temps à expliquer à mes enfants, et comme je reçois souvent des étrangers chez moi, j'ai même mis dans la douche de la chambre d'amis un texte explicatif tellement similaire qu'on le croirait copié dessus!!"  Isabelle H.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

VERSAILLES STREETS: IN THE MOOD FOR ART

 Très street art--watch your step


 "Even so, Versailles is the only place where I've ever seen a fleur-de-lys stenciled as graffiti," I said at a morning coffee with French friends when the conversation turned to graffiti and tagging. 


"Oh, that must have been my crazy cousin!" exclaimed one of the ladies.

"Really? How old is he?"
"Forty-five! He's a die-hard Royalist."


The next time I went out, I looked for the neatly spray-painted emblem of the French monarchy, but it had already gone the way of other graffiti and tags in Versailles, which are quickly removed by a city crew.



For the past couple of years, however, another genre of graffiti in Versailles has had longer staying power. Unobtrusive, and even beguiling, are fluid quick studies of human figures that an anonymous artist has painted on pedestrian markings. The artist executed the works dribbling paint from his finger, sometimes adding whimsical captions.


The pedestrian markings do get repainted from time to time and the streets repaved as a part of regular maintenance, but this hasn't deterred our local street artist; it's only provided him with fresh surfaces to work on. Engaging and non-aggressive, the charming, ephemeral figures fit the genteel mood of this very livable city and have transformed a  simple walk around town into an amusing photo op adventure. 







Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A POTATO BY ANY OTHER NAME

That which we call a "patate"


If you've ever been confused or amused by the term pomme de terre en robe de chambre (potato in a dressing gown!) then you are not alone. Even French people wonder if it isn't a silly
mispronunciation or charming deformation of pomme de terre en robe des champs, meaning a potato cooked in its skin.


In fact, both terms are correct and in common usuage, but  pomme de terre en robe de chambre is the original eighteenth century French phrase for an unpeeled potato. Long ago, a dressing gown or a robe de chambre enveloped the body entirely, from neck down; thus the logic for the term's use.  The expression was transformed over time (some contend by Parisians) to the less tickling and more elegant "en robe des champs"or field dress, i.e., as it comes from the fields.


You can't stop progress and one of the niftiest convenience foods on sale in French supermarkets are small microwavable packages of pristeen new potatoes. Containing about four servings, the packages go directly into the microwave, without piercing, and the potatoes are perfectly cooked and delicious  after a mere seven minutes.





Disappeared from fields during WWI then resurrected in 1977 to become the most coveted gourmet potato on French tables is the Ratte du Touquet. With its light yellow, firm flesh, fine texture and nutty chestnut flavor, this small crescent shaped potato is painstakingly cultivated in the north of France in the sandy, chalky soils and mild climate of the Côte d'Opale and Picardie. 


Potato Storing Tips
Keep an eye on your potatoes and store them in a cool dark spot, 5°C to 12°C (41°F to 53°F) in a container or loosely wrapped in a dishtowel. Too much warmth causes the potatoes to sprout; too much cold causes them to become sweet. Exposition to light turns them green and bitter.

Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron 

Sunday, November 1, 2009

ON THE CHOCOLATE TRAIL

WINNING CHOCOLATE


Chocolate-lover David Lebovitz's name keeps popping up in conversations lately, partly because of the recent release of his new book, The Sweet Life in Paris, and partly because the cookbook writer and Californian pastry chef's followers are in a buzz wanting to know who his favorite Parisian chocolatier is. It turns out that his is just about everybody else's: the young and dynamic chocolate-maker Patrick Roger who already has five beautiful and trendy boutiques in and around Paris.

Roger has an irresistible and tastefully contemporary website with funky fringes on which--and here's the good news for folks back home in the States--he has an online boutique that fills international orders. I realize that we Americans love to sling superlatives around like six-shooters saying what is the very best of this or that, but I have to say that www.patrickroger.com has some of the best Web site design in the universe. (If it's worth the hyperbolism, then why not go all the way?) Don't miss his life-size chocolate sculptural creations.

David Lebovitz, who transplanted himself to Paris in 2002 after working as pastry chef for nearly 13 years at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, has a Web site that is pal mal, not bad, too.

Mentionning Chez Panisse reminds me of a San Franciscan friend who sorts people by whether or not they recognize the Marcel Pagnol reference without consulting Google. Her motto is, "Tell me what you read, I'll tell you who you are." It's a spin-off of the 18th century French gourmet and gourmand, Brillat-Savarin's aphorism: "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es." Tell me what you eat, I'll tell you who you are.


Whatever you eat, chocolate is always a best seller during hard economic times and what can really count in the comfort zone is a good cup of hot chocolate at the first signs of an autumn cold snap. In a Friday-night card game with a kicky French friend (who has Nutella eyes) we used secret recipes as stakes and I won his grandmother's thick and creamy hot cocoa recipe. Here it is:

Grand-Mère's Old-Fashioned Hot Chocolate
  • 2 liters (1/2 gallon) of whole milk
  • 50 grams (3/4 cup) of bitter cocoa powder 
  • 115 grams (1/2 cup) of sugar
  • zest of one half orange (optional)

Stir cocoa powder well with one cup of the milk in a very large sauce pan. Heat and add rest of milk. Bring to a near boil, after five minutes add sugar and stir for 20 minutes (yes!) keeping the mixture simmering.   Carefully control temperature so that the milk does not boil over, removing pan from heat if necessary.  

When the mixture is reduced to about half, add orange zest and stir another five minutes. It's ready when the chocolate is thick and leaves a creamy coating on a spoon. Serves six.


www.patrickroger.com 
www.davidlebovitz.com
www.chezpanisse.com

Text & photo ©2009 P.B. Lecron
All rights reserved

Saturday, October 24, 2009

IT'S ALL IN HOW YOU SAY IT

The Petit Bateau set 

Just as American kids learning to mangle French like to say "Mercy buckets" for "Merci beaucoup" or " Bone's yours, mon sewer" for "Bonjour, monsieur," French school children like to get their licks in, too:  "See you next time,"  "See you next week" or maybe even "See you soon,"  can come out, "See you 'Nesquick!'"  French kids can be sly and naughty, too,  deforming "tiger" so that it sounds ever so much like "ta gueule" (shut up) when doing animal flash cards with the English nounou (nanny). That happens when les enfants are feeling "pepsi."


Easy and Quick Goûter (Snack)


There probably isn't a child in France who hasn't come home from school with this fun to make yogurt cake recipe. It makes a one-layer cake for those who can't yet do the math to double the quantities.



The measurements are made from an individual-sized yogurt container or "pot":

1 pot of fruit yogurt of any flavor
3 pots of flour 
2 pots of sugar
1  pot of cooking oil
4 large eggs

2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of vanilla




Preheat oven to 390°F (200°C). Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Pour in buttered and lightly floured cake pan. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in its center comes out clean. Let cool then remove from pan.



For an easy glaze,  dilute a favorite jam with a little bit of water and spread on the cake.



N.B: If making this recipe here in France, then use one sachet of baking powder (levure chimique or as it's often called, levure alsacienne--which amounts to two teaspoons) and one sachet of vanilla-flavored sugar (sucre vanillé). These small, pre-measured packages are standard and convenient French supermarket items which make the recipe even simpler.




Text & photo ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE RIGHT SLICE: UN ART DE VIVRE

More on the hows and whys of cheese cutting rules


Cheese flavor and texture are best at room temperature. Thirty minutes to one hour beforehand set out cheese. Hard cheeses need more time than soft to come to room temperature, and because they have less moisture they should remain wrapped until just before serving so they won't dry out. Other cheeses should be loosely covered so they can breathe; contact with air improves savor and consistency.

To maintain peak quality, avoid exposing cheese to unnecessary temperature changes; set out no more than the amount that will be eaten.


Use more than one knife if serving cheeses with contrasting aromas; residual odor of a spicy blue on a blade can affect the taste of a fresh chèvre (goat cheese).  Purists recommend a separate knife for each variety.






At the dining table, the traditional two-tipped, curved cheese knife cuts semi-soft to semi-hard cheeses; its prongs are used to prick and transfer cheese slice to plate.


Certain manufacturers have redesigned the traditional cheese knife to also cut soft cheeses, giving it either holes in its blade or etched sides to prevent sticking when slicing. Otherwise, a very narrow, fine-bladed knife is recommended for cutting soft cheeses at the table.  If no specialty knives are on hand, use ordinary knives to slice soft to semi-hard cheeses.

The broad, heart-shaped cheese knife with its pointed blade, can cleave hard or aged cheeses and handles well any crumbly cheese, hard or soft.

Strictly a kitchen utensil for some, the Norwegian cheese plane cuts in one, smooth stroke paper-thin slices of hard cheeses. With hard cheeses, the thinner the slice, the more melt-in-the-mouth flavor. Convenient for preparing snacks and hors d'ouevres, the handled cheese plane has found its way out of the kitchen and onto the buffet table alongside the cream cheese spreader for casual entertaining where guests often help themselves. It can leave, however, a broad indentation in the cheese which makes subsequent slicing less than perfect. 

The kitchen tools: Wire cheese slicers, either hand-held or guillotine style, cleanly cut blue and softer cheeses without compacting them as classic knives do. Necessity is the mother of invention and even a tautly held length of dental floss can nicely slice through cheese with a fragile texture.

Wide, bell-shaped knives cut blocks and cubes; double-handled knives multiply cutting force for bricks, blocks and wheels; and cheese cleavers break up hard, aged cheeses into edible pieces.


Sharing drawer space with conventional graters and shredders is the girolle, a hand-cranked circular cheese parer, the funnest gadget since the mechanical apple peeler. A 1982 Swiss invention, it shaves thin, curly ruffles, called cheese rosettes, off the tops of small hard, round cheeses, in particular the mini-sized cylinder of tête-de-moine.

 
The cutting rule: cut portions so that everyone gets a taste of the best part of the cheese.
Share the rind. Cheese should be cut so that each portion has some rind so that the last slice isn't mostly rind. It's impolite to take only from the center, and besides, cheese is more savory near the rind. To achieve a fair and polite distribution, cut round or square, flat cheese in triangles starting from the center going out to the rind.

Cheeses fabricated in large wheels, such as gruyère that are served in wedges or oblong slabs laying flat, should be cut from side to side. 



The exception:
some cheeses are too runny to cut when ripe like mont d'or, as it's known in France or vacherin in Switzerland, or like an advanced époisses. After the upper rind has been pricked and peeled back with a sharp knife, the liquidy cheese is scooped out with a spoon and eaten "à la bonne franquette," simply and without fuss, on pieces of crusty baguette or fresh, country-style bread. These cheeses are left in their original pine boxes  to maintain their form. (The mont d'or pictured here is still fresh, and not yet in a more affiné and runny stage that would come with the passage of a couple of days and warmer ambient temperature.)


The order: keep cheeses well separated on a flat and sturdy platter or board to keep aromas from mingling and to make cutting easier. Arrange them by category and strength. A selection of three or four cheeses makes a respectable platter. Firmer cheeses, more difficult to slice, should be placed toward the outside rim. Crumbly cheeses should be toward the center.

At a dinner, the cheese platter is left in the kitchen until served. If a whole cheese is in the selection, it should be "opened," that is to say presented with a first slice already made, to show ripeness and to relieve guests of the responsibility of being the first to slice it. For example, a small round served in its entirety would have its first slice cut with its point slighty detached from the cheese center. Other than that, cheese should never be pre-sliced in individual portions when it's to be served after the meal's main course. 

Flavor is optimal just after cutting so each guest slices his own, taking small portions of two or three cheese presented in the selection, being careful not to disarrange the platter by inattentive cutting. Cheese is eaten with a fork and knife, and although a bite-sized part may be placed on a small piece of bread, it should never be spread.

When serving cheese as hors d'oeuvres, entrées or accompaniments on brunch platters when cheese is to be sliced beforehand, manage timing so that cheese is not cut or cubed too far in advance, and be sure it's kept well-covered until serving. The smaller the piece of cheese, the faster it dries out. 


For a quick and easy guide to how to slice different cheese forms, see a preceding blog post, The Right Slice: Cheese Cutting Tips.

Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron with the exception of photo of girolle posted with the permission of Interprofession Tête de Moine, www.tetedemoine.ch


 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

LIFE'S LITTLE LUXURIES: LADUREE SUCREE RECIPE BOOK

Gourmets! Gourmands!  
THE dessert and mignardise recipe book of the decade has been released for sale. But hurry, trés prisé and luxuriant, these fashionable and beautifully bound treasures with gilded page edges are almost too pretty to touch, let alone open and work from in the kitchen. Peu importe! A must. Cakes, cookies, pastries, and irresistible macarons...the celebrated Parisian maison de pâtisserie reveals its best-kept secrets. Packaged in a lovely gift box.

©2009  P.B. Lecron

THE RIGHT SLICE: CHEESE CUTTING TIPS

HOW TO CUT CHEESE IRREPROACHABLY
New to France? Here's a quick and easy guide to  serving & cutting cheese at the table.

The temperature: Bring cheese to room temperature 30 minutes to one hour before serving. Set out no more than will be eaten and cover loosely. Remember to quickly refrigerate any unserved cheese.

The knife: A two-tipped, curved blade. Use more than one if serving stronger cheeses with milder ones. When sliced, cheese is pricked with tips to transfer to plate.


 The rule: Share the rind. Cut cheese so that each portion has some rind. The last slice served should not have more rind than cheese. A plus: cheese flavor isn't uniform, it has more tang near the rind.

The order: Mild cheeses first, followed by stronger. Don't mingle aromas, keep different cheeses well apart on platter and plate.


 
The right slice:  
  • Small cheeses, round or square: cut in halves, thirds or quarter 

  • Cylindrical or log cheeses: cut in rounds






  • Flat cheese, round or squares & pyramids:  cut in triangles, just as for a cake, picking knife point in center of cheese

  • Firm cheeses, laid flat: cut slices lengthwise if rind is only on one end, crosswise if rind runs along parallel edges 



  • Blue-veined cheeses: cut in triangles radiating from center of the lower end of the wedge, the first cut will be a corner


The next post: The Right Slice: More on the hows and whys of cheese cutting rules. Un art de vivre.
and
The Right Slice: Cheese Tips


Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron