Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter Wonderland

One of the few regions in France that we had never visited was the Alpes. Early last week we took off to see the high mountains of the Haute Savoie. We stayed at a little auberge called Le Chalet des Troncs in the Grand Bornand set among the Aravis mountain range, about half way between the beautiful city of Anncey and Mont Blanc, the highest mountain peak in Europe. Our first stunning view of the Alpes was from the Grand Bornand. Our chalet was outside of town, very cozy and rustic. We visited Anncey, the capital of the Haute Savoie, with it's large lake and charming historic town. Our second goal was to visit Chamonix and to catch a view of the glaciers and Mont Blanc itself (15,781 ft). The drive was spectacular and we enjoyed watching several brave souls ski off the highest peaks, open parachutes and with skis still attached, float across the valley and land outside town. We arrived back home on Friday to find that our litle town, (elevation 740 ft), looked just like the Alpes!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Food! Glorious Food!

I can't resist French markets. Who could? The fresh and seasonal foods brought to market each morning by the producers and offered in beautiful, bountiful displays are simply irresistible! The place we stayed in Nantes happened to be just a few steps away from the Talensac Market, one of the largest and most spectacular ones we've seen in France. It is located in a very long glass building with an enormous number of stands offering some of the best produce and seafood available in France. The sandy soils in the area are known to grow superior vegetables and the seaside, just up the river a few kilometers, offers a gorgeous variety of seafood, particularly shell fish, which prefer the cooler Atlantic waters. There is nothing like fresh-made butter, which is not usually available at supermarkets. Dairy farmers sell their large golden-yellow mounds which taste so much more delicious than anything found at the "grand-surface". Baked goods are available in every shape, form and taste. When we shop at an unfamiliar market, we always choose the stands which have the longest lines. We had a five minute wait here, but it was well worth it! This is the season for coquille st jacques. Marché Talensac had mounds of them on offer, along with oysters. We bought a dozen. We had never seen tete de veau on offer before. With our American sensibilities, it's hard for us to imagine eating this popular dish! At the market the heads were decorated in sunglasses and sported pipes. The second time we passed this stand, one of the heads was gone...bound for someone's dinner table. Thanksgiving in France We celebrated Thanksgiving as always with our American friends and family. Emily and Alex (our cooking instructor at Maison Conti) are both vegetarians, so they concentrate on making the vegetable side dishes, and desserts. We cooked together all day long, and had a beautiful and abundant meal together as the sun was setting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Sultan's Elephant

We had the extraordinary treat last weekend of visiting Nantes, southwest of us, just up the Loire River from the Atlantic ocean. We were there as the support/babysitting team while our daughter Emily and her theater troupe performed their Cabaret Decay Unlimited. Nantes is a beautiful, lively city with elegant old buildings, a fabulous open air market (of which more next time), a castle, and vibrant cultural life. But the single thing which makes Nantes the most special in my mind is the Sultan's Elephant and Machines of the Island (les machines de l'île). In Nantes, as in Paris, between the right and left bank of the river is a large island which houses the workshop, museum and ultimately a park (still under construction) of the artist François Delaroziere, famous throughout Europe for his incredible moving sculptures and gigantic puppets. The 50 ton, 35 foot high elephant, is made of wood, iron and leather and is operated by 22 people. He moves realistically as all Delaroziere's creatures do. He appeared on the streets of London a few years ago without any prior publicity. This is one of the favorite methods the artist uses to introduce his characters. They are a surprise and they gather unsuspecting, amazed crowds around them as they appear as if from nowhere. It adds to the magic that surrounds the work of this unique artist. While visiting the elephant, who now lives next to the workshop and museum, we were able to see him come alive. He raised his trunk, opened his mouth, bellowed and shook his ears from side to side. His eyes opened and closed. He did not, however, take a stroll or blow water from his large trunk. To see all the elephant is capable of, click here. Inside the museum is a scale model of the elephants skeletal structure. The museum houses several other creatures from Delaroziere's workshop. He begins each project with a detailed mechanical drawing and then builds his creations, with a large team of craft's people, from the most ordinary of materials: billows, fans, pulleys, wire, leather, metal and beautifully carved wooden pieces. He points to Leonardo da Vinci, Gustave Eiffel and Jules Verne as his major influences. Certainly his creatures are a perfect blend of those three geniuses! All of the creatures move and visitors can ride the machines and interact with the creations. He works very hard to make the movements and articulation of his creations move in realistic ways. The sea monster was seen to emerge from the Loire river in Nantes one morning and float away. He now lives in the museum. The enormous workshop is also open to view. There is always some new and mysterious project being planned and constructed. The little girl giant is one of the most astonishing of Delaroziere's creations. She lives out of sight, but appears in one European capital or the other from time to time, usually unannounced. Over 2,500,000 have viewed this YouTube video. The princess is a recent project which appeared on the streets of Liverpool last year. Francois Delaroziere also has a Music Project which he talks about in this interview.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Château of Montmirail

The castle of Montmirail is unusual in that from the back it looks Gothic, whereas from the front it has a graceful Renaissance facade. They hardly seem as if they belong together. The photo of the back of the château was taken from the Green Room at Maison Conti. The castle is essentially in our backyard. The front, on the other hand, is not visible until you go through the gates and enter the grounds of the castle. It is still a private residence, but during the summer months, one can take a tour. The aesthetic of the Gothic era was purely practical. The idea was to create a fortified stronghold, to withstand the frequent attacks that any castle would expect in the course of things. For hundreds of years, wars were a kind of summer sport and armies got together to attack one another. During the winter months, everyone went back home. Richard the Lion Hearted razed the castle of Montmirail to the ground in about 1175. In those days armies brought the war right to the castle walls and once the castle was destroyed, the conquering army could take control. We found a crude cannon ball in our front yard while we were digging out for our terrace garden. At a certain moment, someone got the bright idea that it might be better NOT to destroy the castle, and rather to do the warring part in a local field, away from the city and château. In that way, the winner could control something worth owning, rather than having to reconstruct all the walls he'd been at such pains to pull down. A fundamental change in architecture accompanied this revelation. During the Renaissance, castles became much more about style and comfort than defense. Montmirail is a site which has been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times. It's a strategic location. One can look out for miles around to see who's approaching. In the 12th century, the castle was also politically well located, just between what was then English-held Normandy, and the Ile de France, the seat of the French government. The family who owned the castle at the time had ties through marriage to both the English and French crowns, so was a kind of neutral place for the kings to meet. St Louis and Henry II had a famous meeting here in 1169 to discuss the church and Thomas Beckett. The French king, who was very pious, was attempting to mediate between the king of England and his archbishop, who were not seeing eye to eye. Henry believed his power trumped that of the church, whereas Thomas Beckett insisted that the crown represented only temporal power, and the church eternal power, thus if there was any conflict between the two, the church wins. Louis tried to argue in favor of Thomas' point of view. Of course within the year, Beckett was assassinated in the cathedral of Canterbury by Henry's henchmen, so it seems the meeting was in vain. This wasn't the first time St. Louis was disappointed with Henry. The first time Henry came to visit Louis at his palace in Paris, he left with Louis' wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Louis wasn't so sorry to be rid of Eleanor, but she controlled much of western France, which became part of England when she divorced Louis to marry Henry. Another famous resident of the castle was the Princess Conti. She was the illegitimate child of Louis XIV and apparently his favorite. She was the daughter of his first mistress, Louise-Françoise, who bore him 3 children. The Princess, named Marie-Anne was beautiful, charming and spiritually minded. When she became of age, Louis legitimized her, leaving her free to marry among the nobility. She married the Prince of Conti, who owned the castle. It was Marie-Anne who added all the Renaissance touches. She also had the house we live in built for her finance minister, which is why we call it Maison Conti. At the time the Italian style was very much in fashion at her father's court, so both Marie-Anne's castle, and our house have a decided Italianate flavor.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Autumn Leaves

This is the time of year when the world glows. The colors are vibrant, breathtaking, It makes it easier to accept the push of darker days just ahead. The season is over, the rhythm of life changes, the guests are less frequent and tend to be business people rather than holiday makers. We order the fuel and a huge supply of firewood. We think of putting the patio furniture away, but not quite yet, not while these golden days are still upon us, fleeting though they be. This year, as often happens, the October weather has been idyllic. Even if the temperature drops, the sun is out and warms our cheeks. Perfect days for walks in the woods, or a drive in the countryside. I take along the camera to capture some of the images, to help me guard them for the cold days. The world has such a wonderful way of easing us into winter!
Nothing Gold Can Stay Robert Frost Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold, Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
The vines on the front of our house mark the season gloriously, bud green in spring, vibrant green for summer, flaming to red for autumn and dropping off when the wind begins to blow, leaving gnarled old trunks exposed during winter months. A walk to our garden affords expansive views over the countryside below our hilltop village. The fields are not yet green with winter cover crops, but the trees turn their various mellow shades. We drive to la Ferté-Bernard once a week to do errands. It's the biggest town in the area, about 10 miles from home. The river flows though the city and there is a large lake for boating and swimming. On the drive back towards home, we stop to capture some images of the gentle landscape. With the colder weather, comes cozy evening fires and out comes the soup and stew recipes. Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence), writes charmingly of France. He recently published an article in the New York Times about October and how the French celebrate Halloween. It's well worth a read and it has a bonus recipe at the end of the column. It's Called Pumpkin Eaters.