Sunday, February 27, 2011

EN UN TOUR DE MAIN

Who could resist buying mangoes at the marché, if only to try this slicing technique?
If you're clumsy cutting mangoes, then this simple slicing method I learned from a marchande de fruits  at the Sunday morning market is for you. With a serrated knife and the mango's broad side placed perpendular to the cutting board, slice off a large section of each side. The large flat seed of the mango remains in the mid-section. Score the two pieces with criss-cross cuts, being careful not to slice through to the skin--the mango's or yours. From the skin side, push the mango open and out. You can then shave off the cubes for use in salads, chutneys or salsas, or simply place the mangue en hérisson on a dessert plate to be eaten with fork and knife. The delicious flesh remaining around the mango seed (the best part) is usually reserved for eating over the kitchen sink...

Place mango in this position and visually divide
 into three sections, the mid-section being
narrow, and slice.


Vocabulary
Marché: market
Mangue: mango
Marchand(e) de fruit: fruit merchant or vendor
Hérisson: hedgehog
En un tour de main: in an instant


Text & photos ©2011 P.B. Lecron

Friday, February 25, 2011

YOU'LL KNOW ONE WHEN YOU SEE ONE


You'll know une maison de maître when you see one. It's generally defined as a large country house lived in by the property owner; and by extension a spacious and opulent abode. They're often colonial homes, chateaux, villas, or large "lordly" farm houses. This fashionable 19th century maison de

maître with iron pergola caught my eye while shopping at the bustling Tuesday morning market in the otherwise sleepy village of Olonzac, population 1, 568. Olonzac is an old Cathar town located in the Minervois wine-growing region in the Hérault Department, just west of the Mediterranean coast in the South of France. The last time I checked the house was for sale...



Vocabulary
maison de maître: master's house
Cathar: medieval Christian sect violently persecuted in the 13th century as heretic; adepts professed a form of Manichaean dualism and sought to achieve great spiritual purity




Text & photos ©2011 P.B. Lecron


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

AND YOUR BIRD CAN SING

Alouette des champs or sky lark
As kids we used to love to listen to my mother tell stories of her early 1930s high school, especially those about her French teacher's ticks, the most famous being that he would open his mouth so wide that his students could see his uvula. (But I don't think that that was the reason why the poor soul was one day carried away from school in a camisole de force by men in white coats.)

While telling a French friend, who is also a professor of German in a lycée, this encouraging anecdote (yes, there is a way out), I slipped up and with still another malapropism nearly brought his 18th century rafters down with laughter saying, "Il ouvrait une si grande bouche qu'on voyait son alouette."  He opened his mouth so so wide you could see his...oh good grief!


The French word for uvula, that funny soft fleshy thing that dangles at the back of the mouth, is luette, not alouette, which is that sweet little bird anyone learning French sings about.

I've yet to actually identify an alouette, so I could "officially" check it off in my Roger Tory Peterson's Guide des Oiseaux d'Europe, which incidentally was my very first book purchase as a landed resident in France. I hail from a family of birders so I was delighted to find that the familiar Peterson field book series existed for European birds. (In the bird world, the Peterson Identification System is considered the greatest thing since binoculars.) I pounced  on it at the fifth annual Salon du Livre back in 1985, which at the time was held in the not yet restored Grand Palais in Paris

Bibliophiles present in Paris might want to make note that the 2011 Salon du Livre will be held March 18-21 at the Porte de Versailles.

To listen to the long and varied chant of the alouette des champs, click here.


Expression: Le miroir aux alouettes is something which fascinates by virtue of its misleading appearance, and fools.  The expression's origin comes from a spinning, mirrored lure hunters used to place in fields to attract ground nesting alouettes


Vocabulary lesson
camisole de force: straightjacket
alouette: lark
oiseau(x): bird(s)
luette: uvula
chant: singing, song

©2011 P.B. Lecron


Monday, February 21, 2011

STONE AND ILLUSION

We were in the company of a French architect when we spotted this exceptional carved limestone trompe l'oeil entry façade in the small pittoresque city of Pézenas, the pearl of the Languedoc. What a surprise, even for an architect in this town which is renowned for the diversity of  its 17th century monumental entry doors. Naturally we lingered at this one, looking at it from all angles.

Located at 1-3 rue des d'André and bordering the 14th century Jewish ghetto of the historic Vieux Pézenas, the arch flanked by oblique doric columns and its door on a bias create an intriguing false perspective. Alternating bas-relief bucranes and rosaces ornament the Gallo-Roman style entablature.




In the 17th century private construction flourished in Pézenas, then an important commercial center.  Property parcels were long and narrow so owners manifested their stature through the creation of monumental doors. The porche here gives entry to the hôtel d'Agde de Fondousse, one of the most important residences built in those golden days. It has now been entirely and meticulously restored. While searching for information about the door entry I found photos made well before the restoration, below. The arch had been filled in and a column had disappeared.


                            
Vocabulary
trompe l'oeil: trompe l'oeil; visual illusion in art or architecture; literally "deceives the eye"
pittoresque: picturesque
vieux: old
bucrane: sculptural work representing an ox head
porche: entry porch

©2011 P.B. Lecron

Sunday, February 20, 2011

TASTE AND IMAGINATION

Devouring Dumas
Did you know that Alexandre Dumas authored one of the most important culinary reference books ever written, the Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine? Dumas was one of the finest gourmets of his century and some say that if he had not been a great writer, he would have been a great chef. A few months before his death he finished his cooking dictionary for which he had accumulated throughout his life more than 3,000 recipes and delectable anecdotes. Dumas himself considered it a sort of testament and one of his greatest works. A must for the serious cookbook collector or Dumas fan.


The first two editions, that of Alphonse Lemerre in 1873 and of Tchou in 1965, rapidly disappeared from booksellers' shelves to become hard-to-find rarities, remedied in France since 2000 by the Phébus edition supervised by leading Dumas specialist, Daniel Zimmermann. More than
500 illustrations of the epoch.











To read more that I've written about Alexandre Dumas, see  Still the Talk of the Town: The Chateau of Monte-Cristo or look for Monte-Cristo! Don't forget Monte-Cristo! at The Literary Traveler.

Text & photo ©2011 P.B. Lecron


Monday, February 14, 2011

LOVE LOST

I can't let February 14, le jour de la fête de Saint-Valentin, go by without recommending Charles Aznavour's insinuatingly romantic and scathing love song, Tu t'laisses aller. Discovered in the 1940s by Edith Piaf, Aznavour, the son of Armenian immigrants, is venerated as the living classic French crooner the world over.

On a video I found, Aznavour gives a fine English introduction to his You've Let Yourself Go song  just before performing it. For translations to the song's most unsaccharine lyrics in two or three languages, click here. Don't be taken aback; it has a "By Jove, is the pastor preaching his sermon directly to me?"quality which, if nothing else, may inspire some reverent shaping up. No mushing around.

Interested in Azanour's biography? Look no farther.

Vocabulary
Tu t'laisses aller: You've let yourself go
chanson: song
jour: day
fête: celebration


Text & photo ©2011 P.B.Lecron

Friday, February 11, 2011

FRANCE'S AVANT GARDENER

I envy the famous French botanist Patrick Blanc's mandarin-length fingernails; he surely must use them as tiny gardening tools when collecting and transplanting tender young plant specimens. Creator of a very practical and successful vertical gardening system, the botanist and researcher with green tinged hair is known the world over in urban landscaping and architectural circles for his patented technique to grow vertical ecosystems without soil. With his simple method and a steady supply of water and nutrients, Blanc can turn any bare wall into a refreshing mass of green.

A plane tree  framed by Patrick Blanc's vertical garden at Les Halles  in Avignon, as seen from a terrace café. 

Blanc, a plant lover since childhood, then scientist at the France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, studied the way plants colonize vertical surfaces and developed his idea on how to plant on city building façades. This Indiana Jones of the plant kingdom has trekked all over in search of plant species that thrive in extreme gravity-defying conditions. Either clinging to cliffs or growing on boulders and dead tree trunks, such plants have wide-ranging shallow root systems which allow them to stabilize on only a fine layer of humus or moss.

Blanc once told me in a interview that because the materials are so lightweight, his technique can be used on buildings of any height. Patented in 1988, his vertical gardening system has been put to the test for more than 20 years.  How does it work? The plants are inserted into slits in a sheet of synthetic substrate mounted on metal frames, and a watering system releases diluted nutrients as needed. Importantly, an air space and a layer of expanded PVC separate the substrate from the supporting wall to protect the building's surface.

How can plants grow without soil? Blanc explains that soil is merely a medium in which plant roots fix themselves for stability; all the minerals and nutrients necessary for growth are transported by water in the soil and absorbed in soluble form by their roots. When creating a vertical garden, Blanc selects species suited to the climate and lighting conditions.

On city walls from New York to New Delhi, Blanc's luxuriant gardens are living canvases which are not only beautiful, but useful. They act as insulation to minimize a building's heating and cooling needs and fight pollution by reducing toxins in the air through photosynthesis and absorption, all without taking up valuable horizontal space.

Read and see more about Patrick Blanc and his latest vertical gardens by clicking here.

Vocabulary
avoir la main verte:  to have a green thumb
mur végétal: vertical garden


The above text contains substantial excerpts from an article I wrote which was originally published in France Today magazine, July/August 2005. 


www.francetoday.com


Text & photo ©2011 P.B. Lecron


Sunday, February 6, 2011

THE COUNTENANCE HE KEEPS

I keep waiting for a delayed character revelation to emerge from the bricks each time I pass his five-story high portrait as I go down my hill and up the next toward the center of Versailles. He looks so, oh gosh, Balzacian, dressed in his black redingote and white cravate, with his placid face framed by short dark curly hair à la Titus and those 19th-century sideburns. Painted in the early 1920s, the rare vintage toothpaste publicity features its enterprising creator, Dr. Pierre Mussot, a.k.a. Dr. Pierre, who has been smiling over decades of comings and goings on avenue des Etats-Unis, a main artery of Versailles. Ads like these, which could be seen from afar, were usually painted on the pignons of five- and six-story Haussmannian constructions in Paris. This location in Versailles was probably selected because the ad could be seen by train passengers arriving on the line coming from the Paris Saint-Lazare station.


The most well-known ad for the mint-flavored toothpaste which Dr. Pierre concocted and commercialized in 1837, is a poster or affiche designed by the famed children's book illustrator Louis-Maurice Boutet de Movel in 1894. But in the post-war giddiness of the Roaring Twenties it was the portrait of the good Dr. Pierre clad in 19th-century attire that was chosen for the giant mural advertisements; his person a symbol harking to a sense of tradition and stability of days gone by.

I sometimes wonder if the keenly observant Honoré de Balzac and the famous Dr. Pierre ever crossed paths, knowing that a multitude of social encounters fueled Balzac's inspiration for the some 2,500 characters in his panorama of 19th century French society, La Comédie Humaine. Then other times, thinking of  Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's eyes on the billboard in The Great Gatsby, I wonder, too, how F. Scott Fitzgerald might have reacted or been affected by the immense portraiture of Dr. Pierre, had he seen one of the mural ads during his séjour in Paris in the early 1920s. Slowly fading away with antiquated charm, the publicity today is discreet, but spanking new Dr. Pierre must have seemed an obnoxiously imposing and all-seeing voyeur.

Some vocabulary
redingote: frock coat
cravate: tie
à la Titus: as that of the Roman Emperor Titus (AD 79-81)
pignon: gable
pâte dentifrice: toothpaste
en vente partout: on sale everywhere
affiche: poster
séjour: sojourn

To read an article I wrote, Back to Balzac, about Balzac and the Maison de Balzac, a Parisian museum dedicated to his life and work,  join The Literary Traveler. An assay of the article is available free; the complete text requires membership.

©2011 P.B.Lecron

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

PARSNIPS, THE NEXT BIG THING

I can remember when it was uncommon to find broccoli in French supermarkets, especially in the hinterlands. Then about twenty years ago broccoli imported from Italy began to appear on grocery store shelves everywhere in France, even in the small town where I used to live.

I predict the next vegetable to make the leap from being found only at public markets or good maraîchers to counters everywhere will be parsnips, or as the French call them, panais.

On the list of forgotten vegetables, the once popular parsnip was dethroned from its reign on French tables by the potato in the 18th century. French culinary interest in the ivory tap root, rich in fiber, minerals, vitamins and antioxydants, however, is picking up. It can be prepared in any way that carrots or potaoes can be, imparting a subtle, sweet flavor half-way between that of a carrot and a turnip. A native to southern Europe, ancient Romans considered it to be an aphrodisiac. Eat accordingly.

A star again. . .
  • Look for firm, unblemished small- to medium-sized parsnips, which only need to be washed and scrubbed before preparing. (I prefer to peel them, however.)
  • Avoid large-sized parsnips which tend to be tough and stringy; these should be peeled as well as have their woody centers trimmed out if using.
  • Parsnips can replace carrots in most recipes; they can be roasted, boiled, steamed, puréed, fried or grated raw for salads. (France's most well-loved young and talented chef, Cyril Lignac, does amazing things with panais and gambas. ) Parsnips also team well with potatoes; a délice when the two are interspersed in a gratin.

Gratin de panais
Peel equal quantities of parsnips and potatoes and slice into rounds. Parboil separately and drain. Lightly grease a glass oven dish with olive oil or butter. Alternate layers of parsnips and potatoes, sprinkling each layer parsimoniously with minced garlic (optional) and grated swiss cheese, salt and pepper. Add enough light cream so that only the bottom two-thirds of the layers are covered. Top with a last, light layer of cheese and bake in a medium to hot oven for 20 minutes.

Vocabulary
Maraîcher, -ère: market gardener; truck farmer
Gambas:  prawns
Délice: delight

Text & photo ©2011 P.B. Lecron