Back in the air and bound for Paris via Bangkok and Dubai. The plane is enormous; I’m not sure whether I’m sitting upstairs or downstairs. I’m reminded of the words of actress Talulah Bankhead when she boarded the Queen Mary in 1931 and asked ‘What time does this place get to New York?’ Aboard are lots of young, scantily clad passengers travelling to tattoo parlours in Bangkok, some old duffers like myself on their way to poke around European museums and a few bound for vacation in Dubai. With so many holiday possibilities in this suddenly shrunken world, why anyone would be interested in spending free time in Dubai defeats me, unless you are a worshipper of the Golden Calf and enjoy window shopping for Rolex watches, playing tennis on the roof of a skyscraper or wafting through air-conditioned, marble-clad hotel lobbies. Like Babylon, I suppose Dubai will end up under the sand, only the tip of a broken ski-lift marking its tomb. Unlike Babylon there will be nothing among the ruins that will interest the Louvre or the antiquities department of the British Museum.
I feel a strong sense of home when I come to Paris; after all we were married for close on fourteen years. I loved her then although I’m not sure she loved me in return, certainly not in the beginning, for she had many lovers. But little by little, in her coquettish way, she revealed herself, from her medieval rat holes in the rue Quincompoix to her glassy slopes of La Defense, until she finally came to me completely, nue, toute nue et sans culottes. Now she is an old mistress I like to visit occasionally with no thoughts of marriage for we have both changed. Of course, those that fall in love with her now love her for what she is, for she renews herself continually while we merely age. In years to come her new lovers too will mourn the loss of the Paris they loved.
It was certainly a less busy and less regulated city in 1970. No one paid parking fines in the knowledge that the city had no means of enforcing collection, which it acknowledged by announcing annual amnesties. With considerably less traffic than present and no rules against driving after a couple of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, it was quite possible, as I well know, to drive the wrong way around the Etoile at four in the morning. Then, there were only six other founding states in the European Union and our office challenge, to sleep with a girl from each member country, was not unachievable; today even George Clooney would have trouble completing the course. Gone too is the afternoon thé dansant in the café under the Theatre du Champs Elysees where we would light up our elderly dancing partners with a Coca Cola bottle down the front of our trousers. Ah oui, ah oui.
One secret the city yielded up concerns the world’s oldest profession; no, not accountants. While conducting an inventory at one of my audit clients, the minor haute-couture house of Jean-Louis Scherrer, I asked why a rack of expensive dresses had been excluded. These, said the elegant manageress, making me feel like a cockroach about to be speared by her haut-talons, ‘are partly-paid dresses awaiting the final installments.’ In fact, to put it politely, they were the accumulated earnings of demi-mondaines. The scam operated as follows: The lady, declining cash for her services as too vulgar, suggests a little dress instead. The dress, which costs 3,000 francs, is sold, with the connivance of the assistant for, say 500 francs, but left at the shop by the lady for “alterations”. After five more ‘tricks’ the dress is hers. Quelle finesse!!
Even blindfolded I believe I could identify my whereabouts from Paris’ particular smell, a mixture of perfume, disinfectant, beeswax and praline. I’m surprised someone hasn’t bottled it and marketed it as Eau de Clichy. I love it here; shall I seek asylum?
I’m staying with my old friend P-J. We are anciens combattants and have fought our way together through feijoadas in Brazil, raclettes in Switzerland and Chili Crab Cakes in New Orleans. We will spend a few days in Versailles and Paris and then we are off to Touraine and Anjou to see if classic, French provincial cuisine is alive and well after the deprivations of fast food and the excesses of nouvelle cuisine. P-J, a supremely peaceful man, has some very comfortable digs in Louis XIV’s old Ministry of War, a stone’s throw from the Palace. The building, appropriately in the quartier St Louis, is next to the Conservatoire du Musique and on sunny mornings one may wake to the sound of piccolo and violin.
Dinner in one of my favourite restaurants, Le Limousin in Versailles, an old fashioned, no nonsense establishment where the speciality is gigot. While P-J modestly picks at some foie gras frais for starters, I tuck into one and a half legs (or rather three half shinbones) of grilled bone marrow, leaving my finished plate looking like a prehistoric ossuary. For mains P-J takes the gigot with pommes dauphinoises while I choose an andouillette, a sausage of what appears to be compressed, highly seasoned rubber bands but in fact are chitterlings, the small intestines of the pig. The menu informs me that my andouillette is a 5A model, that is to say the top of the range according to the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique, the governing body of this particular species of sausage.
Saint Louis Blues
France is a very saintly country; even the cheeses are canonized; in fact I’m nibbling on a tasty Saint Marcellin as I write. We have a Saint Paris railway station (St Lazare), a saint writer cum aviator (St Exupery) and thousands of sanctified cities, towns, villages and hamlets, from St-Agnan to St-Zacharie. Each day is named for one saint or another, and of these a select few have been chosen as France’s patron saints. One of these, Saint Denis (the first Bishop of Paris), has lent his name both to the Abbey of St Denis, last resting place of French Kings and to the rue St Denis, notorious nesting place for those seeking solace in the arms of a fille de joie.
It is the 800th anniversary of the birth of Saint Louis, aka Louis IX, France’s only King to be honored with sainthood, the medieval equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and, after an unseasonal navarin and a glass of Saumur in the Café des Deux Palais, we pay our respects with a visit to Sainte-Chapelle. On the way P-J shoos away small packs of Romany children who, he claims, under guise of asking us to sign a petition or complete a meaningless questionnaire, will strip us of our purses like a school of hungry piranhas.
I can never understand why the French, and the Parisians in particular, are so often accused of rudeness. They are a serious people and may occasionally tire of the less mannered peoples that invade their country, intent only on enjoyment and expecting everyone to love them for buying a croque monsieur and a café au lait. I understand certain sections of the Inuit people are almost as well mannered as the French, but I would need to see that for myself.
It is Sunday, market day and autumn and the plane trees lining the broad avenues that fan out from the Palace are beginning to litter the sidewalks. Recent rain makes it seem that we are walking through a dish of sodden cornflakes. Past the statue of Louis Lazare Hoche, a General at 23 and mort pour La Patrie at 29. Rain or sun, nothing beats a visit to a French market on a Sunday morning. The market is packed and the same Peruvian pipe band I saw last week in Pitt Street is playing El Condor Pasa. I’m surrounded by yellow, corn fed chickens from Bresse, puck-sized goat cheeses with exquisite labels, resembling a hoard of precious medals, pates en croutes, polished, purple aubergines, punnets of raspberries and stalls sagging under mountains of charcuterie. My taste buds, long dormant, begin to flower again. I hate to be pessimistic but I think it will be a thousand years before Australia can produce a saucisson of the quality one finds in the weekly food markets of France.
We buy oursins sur lit de varech (sea urchins on seaweed bed), crab claws, bulots (whelks) and crevettes grises, the tiny, sweet North Sea shrimp that are eaten whole. In England, peeled and encased in seasoned butter they are potted shrimps and served on toast, one of the country’s finer dishes. That evening we bookend our seafood with foie gras frais sur pain d’epices and fromage blanc a la crème and sink a bottle of Domaine Bel Air 2013, Gros Plant du Pays Nantais sur Lie. After dinner P-J opens a superb 15 year old Armagnac. Poured into glasses that could accommodate several goldfish in comfort, the aroma mixes into the general atmosphere of smouldering Monte Cristo No 3s, leather-bound works of Jules Verne and 17th Century furniture.
For reading matter I have brought ‘Agincourt’ by soldier/explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, not to upset the French but because the author, interestingly, had notable ancestors fighting on both sides in the conflict. One ancestor, William the Conqueror’s general commanding the 1066 invasion of England, was rewarded with estates and titles in that country. Among his descendants were a queen of England and Henry V’s captains at Agincourt. Members of the Fiennes family who remained in France also prospered, one ending up as Connetable de France, one dying at Agincourt. Finsbury Circus in London was land donated by the family as a last resting place for the heart of a son killed in the 2nd Crusade. Actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes are cousins.
On the 20th June 1789 Louis XVI, in an effort to halt the liberalizing program of the Estates General, barred its members from entry into the Hotel des Menus-Plaisirs, their normal meeting place in Versailles. A deputé from Paris, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, led his frustrated colleagues to the tennis court in the rue du Jeu de Paume. There, 641 deputés, that is to say the Third Estate joined by a few deputés from the Clergy and Nobility, swore ‘never to separate until the Constitution of the Kingdom is established and built on solid foundations’. If you stand in the Jeu de Paume now, you are standing at the birthplace of French democracy. Later that year Monsieur Guillotin, a physician by profession, proposed that all persons guilty of crimes demanding capital punishment should suffer the same clean and efficient method of execution. It was a German engineer, Tobias Schmidt, who actually designed and built the instrument. Obviously, it sounded wrong to be ‘Schmidted’ or to be ‘sent to the Schmidt’ and so it became known as the Guillotine. Personified during the Terror as Madame Guillotine when she operated in the Place de La Concorde, she had a long and busy life. The last public guillotining was in June 1939 outside the Saint-Pierre Prison (another Saint) in Versailles (now the Palais de Justice). The last person to be executed by guillotine was Hamida Djandoubi in September 1977.
We are off to Touraine and Anjou or Indre et Loire and Maine et Loire, two of the departements established by Napoleon whose size was determined by the distance a horseman could cover in a day. We stay mainly on the left bank of the Loire avoiding the better-known tourist attractions. We are in early autumn and follow the curling road alongside the river, which in the morning is invisible until the sun disperses the damp mist hovering over the surface. The trees are in various stages of advancement into their autumn colours; there are balls of mistletoe in the tops of poplars; crows peck among the corn stubble. It’s like having a preview of heaven, a sort of visitors day, except that I suspect that the real heaven, if it existed, would be rather boring, full of politically correct people strumming harps, while all the interesting people will be in the other place (if it existed).
Our first stop is the village of Meung because it was here, on a spring morning, standing on the banks of the Loire, some 45 years ago, that I had an epiphany – a natural not religious epiphany; I have never believed in the supernatural. Similar feelings of intense happiness have returned now and again, sometimes interspersed with occasional glum periods of leaden depression and debilitating fatigue. I once checked out these symptoms with a psychiatrist, who, after looking at the results of a question and answer test, pronounced me to be mildly bi-polar. ‘Tell me’ I said, ‘how does this make me different from a normal, uni-polar, person, for we all have mood swings’. ‘The difference’ said the Doc, ‘is that you do not know how you will feel tomorrow, whether you will be sad or happy, whereas I, on the other hand know that I will always be the same’. This information convinced me to reject the Doc’s offer of medication and leave his consultancy content with the knowledge that the road ahead was at least unknown. Peaks and valleys have always made for a more interesting landscape then endless plains.
After standing in that same spot by the river, waiting to see if enlightenment would strike a second time, it was time for lunch and the Café du Commerce looked, and proved to be, promising. We both chose le plat du jour, a parmentier du coq au vin, mine with a pichet of cabernet franc, P-J’s with a Perrier because he was driving, although I suspect he drives better after a glass of Jaja. Afterwards we visited the Chateau where we descended into the damp bowels of its prisons or ‘oubliettes’ where poet Francois Villon languished for several months in 1461. From his ‘Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis’ comes one of the world’s most quoted lines of poetry ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ (‘Where are the snows of yester-year?’). Jehan de Meung, another famous inhabitant, was the co-writer, with Guillaume de Lorris, of Le Roman de La Rose, the bible of courtly love.
Then, in short order, the Chateau of Usse, which inspired a previous visitor, Charles Perrault, to write Sleeping Beauty; the Chateau of Langais, where Anne de Bretagne married Charles VIII, so adding Brittany to the Kingdom of France and Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci designed helicopters for Francois I. I’m completely Chateau’d out. I’m so worn out with climbing medieval staircases that I have barely the strength to tear apart my bread roll as we sit down to dine at Le Colombien in the village of Villandry. After popping open a bottle of Domaine des Varinelles Saumur Champigny 2010, P-J chooses a Rable de lapin au foie gras de canard extra compote de pruneau de Tours a l’Hypocras. Sheer music isn’t it? P-J is eating so much foie gras the geese and ducks in Perigord have been put on overtime. I’m easing up with a salade de gambas and the fillet de Saint Pierre and finishing with a sorbet. Every restaurant should have a refreshing sorbet on its dessert menu. Le Procope, which opened its doors in 1686 and is still operating in la rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, once offered 80 varieties for the delectation of its clientele.
Our rooms, bearing the scars of multiple reconfigurations since the 14th Century, are perfectly clean and comfortable. When I turn on the taps in the bathroom I hear the reverberating engines of the lost Titanic.
A whizz around the Chateau de Villandry with its Italianate vegetable gardens. A compulsive acquirer of rubbish, I am spending more time in the museum shops than studying examples of Gothic architecture and Gobelin tapestries. A Joan of Arc bookmark, a medieval cooking calendar, a cushion with the embroidered coat of arms of Anne de Bretagne, a fridge magnet with a picture of the Chateau de Chambord, all will be exported to Australia only to end up on sale in one of Sydney’s charity shops. I hesitate over a pair of earrings bearing the heraldic insignia of the Duke of Anjou, trying to picture them hanging from my Honeybee’s lobes. A plastic bassinet and a replica Genoese crossbow secure my interest. But Allo! Allo! What’s this? A plumed musketeer’s hat! A chapeau from the chateau! Alas, lack of luggage space means this tasteful piece of headgear will be unavailable at my local Salvation Army shop.
For lunch, P-J’s intelligence network has fingered Au Chapeau Rouge in the centre of Chinon, where Murielle greets us and we settle in to peruse the menu. I settle for an entrée of Veloute de Topinambour (pumpkin soup), a main of ‘Joue de Roi Rose confite a la Turone Ambreu de Cormery et aux pommes (pig’s cheek with apple) and a dessert of Poire pochée coulee a la feve de cacao (poached pear with chocolate sauce). We tell Christophe, Murielle’s tocque-hatted husband, that we enjoyed the meal.
Worked some of the lunch off with a hike around the Chateau, but must give the liver a rest, it’s been working overtime on all those rich sauces and creams and cheeses, not to mention the wine and the Armagnac. Forty years ago I returned from a trip to Egypt with a violent dose of hepatitis, which kept me bedridden for nearly six months, able only to digest dried bread and peeled and pipped grapes. ‘M’sieur’, said the French Doc when I was finally able to rise from my couch, ‘I regret to inform you that your liver has suffered considerably and therefore you will never be able to drink alcohol again’. Totally wrong of course; I’ve never had much confidence in French doctors since.
Chevaliers de la Table Ronde
Goutons voir si le vin est bon
Last night P-J, a Chevalier de la Tastevin no less, fell in love with an impertinent little Chenin Blanc at dinner, which he felt made a perfect marriage with his Feuilleté de St Jacques à la crème de Cognac and so we are making a detour to the village of Varrains and to the winery of the Daheuiller family. The wines of Touraine are unfashionable and therefore relatively cheap, in fact the most expensive Bourgueil I could find in Nicolas was 8.50 euros. The principal grape varieties of Touraine are Chenin Blanc, present in Vouvray, Saumur and Chinon wines and Cabernet Franc, better known as the minor partner in some Bordeaux blends while Folle Blanche is used in the making of Gros Plant. They all taste of France.
P-J tells me of a grape variety that, distilled, can invoke delirium tremens, a state my mother felt sure would overtake her after a second glass of Dubonnet.
Afterwards, a visit to La Divinière, home of the rumbustious, hard drinking Francois Rabelais, author of the satirical and lewd Gargantua and Pantagruel. Presumably an ancestor of Gerard Depardieu.
Manger à Angers
We’re in the charming town of Angers to visit the Saint Louis exhibition being held in the Chateau. Louis was a manic collector of reliquaries, ornate receptacles of macabre religious ephemera – bits of canonized fingers, splinters from the true cross. Sainte-Chapelle itself was built on Louis’ orders as a giant reliquary to hold the Crown of Thorns. On Sainthood, Louis turned from collector to collected and sure enough, just visible in an elaborate, jeweled container is a minute piece of one of his kingly garments. A coffin-sized reliquary holds the entire body of one nameless, forgotten saint. Missing, of course, is the Holy Grail.
Afterwards, at the highly recommended Creperie du Chateau – a galette of reblochon, pommes de terre et jambon de Bayonne, a crèpe jus de citron et sucre and a bowl of Breton cider. Pas mal du tout.
The royal Abbey of Fontevreauld once held the mortal remains of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son, Richard, although the abbey was ransacked during the French Revolution and only the stone effigies remain. Richard, although King of England spent most of his life in France and travelling to the Holy Land on Crusades, which is why he is referred to as Richard Gare de Lyon in the charming book ‘1066 and all That’. Revolutionaries turned the abbey into a prison which has only been opened to the public since 1985.
Nantes is not a particularly charming town, too little planning and too much grey slate; mind you we are seeing it at its worst in the midst of a rain-storm. Our hotel is basic, which is all one would expect for 51 euros, and P-J has trouble squeezing into the perspex coffin of a shower, especially after what was possibly the best meal of the trip at the apartment of Jean-Michel and Gerard.
A whizz around the Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany and then a visit to the Jules Verne museum overlooking Feydeau island where he was born. Along with HG Wells, a father of science fiction, Jules Verne wrote 62 adventure stories. I suppose his modern day equivalent would be George RR Martin and his Songs of Ice and Fire novels, except that the Frenchman wrote literature, although the stuffy old Academie Francaise refused to recognize this. His yacht was, of course, named after a Saint (Michael).
Back in Versailles it’s time to find some gifts for those left behind and where better than Guerlain, which is strategically located near the point where the tourists exit the Palace and deux pas from chez P-J. Forget Armani, Christian Dior and Old Spice, there are only two real perfumiers, Guerlain, founded in 1824 and Penhaligon, established in 1860, both apparently used by Queen Victoria to keep Prince Albert interested. They both produce unmistakable fragrances but are quite dissimilar. Penhaligon’s Bluebell is an après-tennis kiss in the summerhouse that leaves you throwing your racquet in the air; Guerlain’s Shalimar is the tongue down the throat after dinner at Maxim’s. It is the fragrance that M’Lady de Winter dabs in her ivory cleavage before folding you in her fatal embrace. Habit Rouge was once my eau de choix and brought me considerable success in my salad days. I buy Habit Rouge for my son and Mitsouko for my Honeybee. I decline the assistant’s offer to perfume me; my Honeybee would be upset if I was trampled to death in a sudden stampede by a busload of Polish lady tourists.
One last outing to the antiquarian book market held each Sunday at the old Abbatoirs de Vaugirard (now the Parc Georges Brassens) near the Porte de Vanves. I am fortunate that not many sellers take credit cards and that the market is on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, I exit with several weighty tomes including a Nicolas wine catalogue from 1931 and a charming 1965 cookbook by Michel Oliver, an early exponent of nouvelle cuisine and son of Raymond, owner of the Grand Vefour in the Palais Royal.
Time to leave and give the ducks and geese a rest. Merci P-J. I leave you, (my hand-luggage bursting with unsent post-cards), with a quote from the real Eeyore:
‘This writing business. Pens and pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”