Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An Extraordinary Weekend in Nantes

Self portrait by Olivier Sauzereau. Be sure to see his other exquisite photos on his website.

There are lots of things to like about Nantes. It is a very beautiful city, right on the Loire River and not too far from the Atlantic coast. The architecture is grand and the atmosphere is lively. There must be something in the air that stimulates the imagination. Jules Verne hailed from Nantes as do the famous Machines de l'Ile which, in their way carry forward the same marvelous vision. These are not the only creative minds nurtured in Nantes, as we were soon to discover.

Our dear friends Arnault and Bénédicte live there. Arnault is a man of many parts. He is a nuclear engineer, a talented photographer, singer and musician, a tinkerer extraordinaire, cook, and all around great guy. He has an interest in all things scientific and celestial. He found some photos online of the recent transit of Venus and was amazed to discover that the photographer was from Nantes as well. He was even more excited to learn that this amazing guy, Olivier Sauzereau, was also an astronomer and Nantes historian who is particularly interested in the history of nautical navigation, which has a rich tradition in Nantes. Better yet, Arnault discovered that they had a mutual friend, Olivier Grasset. He was yet further delighted to learn that Rick is a descendant of John Harrison, who developed the first chronometer accurate and dependable enough to determine longitude at sea. Arnault decided that this collision of coincidental relationships deserved a celebration of some kind and thus put together a day of discovery and sharing in Nantes, inviting among others, Rick and myself to his Congrès H4 (Conference of the H4 chronometer, Harrison's crowning achievement of 1761).

We left home on Saturday morning and arrived in Nantes about noon, just in time to get the last table at La Cigale, one of the most beautiful and famous brasseries in all of France. The decorations are stunning, and the menu does not disappoint either. The ceramic artist, Emile Libaudière, who is responsible for the interior design was also born in Nantes. The dining room first opened in 1895.

We spent the afternoon with Arnault, Bénédicte and their three boys, as well as Bénédicte's parents Bernard and Françoise, who have been our friends for many years. They are truly a wonderful family. We feel quite lucky to know them all!

Sunday dawned gray and blue. Arnault went off to the famous Talensac market to get his fresh Sunday fish. He brought home this beauty, a merlu (hake in British English), relative of cod and haddock.

Arnault generously shared the secret of perfectly cooked fish, and I'm about to share it with you! Get a fish pot boiling with with court bouillon. Put the fish in and bring back to a boil. As soon as it does, cover and turn off the heat. Allow the fish to rest in the bouillon for a minimum of 20 minutes and up to 45. It will be perfectly cooked, firm but not dry.

While the fish rested, Arnault whipped up some beure blanc, a emulsified butter sauce that is delicious with fish. For a small pot full, chop 4 shallots finely and add enough red wine vinegar or white wine to cover. Boil until all the liquid is absorbed into the shallots. Now add about a cup of butter cut into small cubes. Add it very slowly, two or three small bits at a time and stir until completely melted into the shallot mixture before adding more. Continue until all the butter is melted.

Bénédicte did the honors of serving up the fish. She peeled back the skin and carefully pulled the firm meat away from the bones. It was poetry in motion watching her.

Boiled potatoes and a crisp green salad completed the meal. Simple, delicious and hearty! I am certainly adding these recipes to our Maison Conti repertoire.

After lunch, our convention got under way. We began at the exquisite apartment of Jérôme and Geneviève, in the center of Nantes, where the participants assembled. There were, besides Bénédicte, Arnault, Bernard, Rick and myself, Hervé, who is an outstanding photographer, Ron, a sailor, Nathalie and Olivier Grasset, friends of Arnault, both scientists, Olivier Sauzereau and his wife Maggie. We drank coffee and introduced ourselves.

We were given a guided tour of the important sites of Nantes that are connected to maritime navigation. An extended group of interested people joined the tour and the weather mostly cooperated. To see some really exceptional photos of this day, follow this link to images taken by Hervé.

Neptune Favors the Traveler, is Nante's motto. Here you see Neptune, god of the oceans, holding up the third floor balcony. He is flanked by two grotesques, who reflect the terror of sailors in trouble on the high seas.

Another building in the same district of Nantes had a more important function. The linear image on the first floor is a meridian, which has now been dismantled. When it was built it acted as a sun clock, which at exactly noon would cast a shadow at a certain point. People lined up with their pocket watches in front the this house to be sure they had correct time. If you know anything about the history of time calculation, you will know how politically fraught the subject could be. Establishing common standards (especially French acceptance of Greenwich Mean Time) took many years.

The elegant Passage Pommeraye is a commercial gallery on three levels. Currently it is basically a shopping mall but is classified as an historical monument.

Olivier pointed out the various sculptures and explained their meaning. Even the locals were largely unaware of their symbolism. It was a pleasure to have Olivier read these sculptures to us.

Olivier told us a delightful story of looking at the stars as a young boy in Nantes and discovering in a 19th century engraving that in one of the prominent city squares there was once a tower, not unlike this one, which no longer existed. He wondered if it might have been an astronomical observatory. No one could tell him. It remained a mystery for years until he was able to piece together its history. He was correct in his assessment and furthermore discovered that another observation tower, some way off, had been built subsequently. No one seemed to reckon the history of this structure – it became a movie house early in the twentieth century and later a watchtower for the occupying Germans in WWII. It was forgotten and more or less abandoned until Olivier uncovered its important role in maritime history. It was an observatory which served the requirement of sailors who needed to calibrate their instruments when on shore. These kinds of observatories were located up and down the coasts.

We had the fun, and distinct privilege, of going up into the tower. It is not open to the public at all. Olivier really made these spaces come alive for us as he described them with passion. He explained how in this room one would have entered and heard the ticking of instruments. We all were transported back in time as he explained it.

On the roof we could look out over Nantes, the Loire and off into the horizon where the sun was beginning to set.

Rick gave a brief talk about John Harrison and explained how it was his job as a child to wind the family chronometer.

We left the tower and our tour of Nantes very well mentally stimulated. But the day was not over yet! Back at Arnault and Bénédicte's house the other Olivier gave us a glimpse into the future. I haven't mentioned that he is a rocket scientist and heading up the French team on an international mission to Jupiter and its moons. He gave us an in depth explanation of the project's goals and schedule and how his team solves the complicated challenges of sending a space craft such an unimaginable distance.

After this weekend we are doing quite a lot of star gazing and dreaming of both past and future. What an amazing world we live in!


  1. Thank you, Nancy, for a fascinating armchair tour. My face is a delicate shade of pistachio, I'm sure!

  2. What a fun tour! I can just hear Rick saying "Cooool!"