Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The years in France, especially Paris, known as the Belle Epoque (from the late 1800s up to World War I), are generally considered to be years filled with excessive joy, light, merriment, and practically endless festivity. We have this impression because of the extraordinary -- and I use that word in its truest sense -- and rather breathtaking achievements in all of the arts, which often reflected the leisure-time pursuits of both ordinary and wealthy Parisians. However, as many of us who are familiar with French history know, this image is a distorted one, only half true. Historian and critic Walter Benjamin may have referred to Paris as the "Capital of the Nineteenth Century" but the bright lights and merriment were all on the surface, masking enormous political turmoil and social injustices.

Last year a unique and insightful book on this topic was published by historian and writer Mary McAuliffe entitled Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011). It is my good fortune that Mary lives in New York, so I have had the pleasure of meeting her for coffee and Paris conversations several times (she also joined me on a panel to celebrate the publication of my Paris book at the 92nd Street Y/Tribeca). Mary holds a PhD in history and is the author of Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light (Princeton Book Company, 2006), which grew out of her regular columns for the wonderful (but now sadly defunct) newsletter, Paris Notes.

I used the word 'unique' to describe Mary's book because thought it is a non-fiction work, it actually reads more like a novel. The chapters are arranged chronologically, which is logical for a book like this, but in each chapter we are introduced to the key personalities and events of the era often through excerpts from actual letters or diaries. I felt like I was a part of the personal lives of everyone, and by the time I finished the book I had a deeper understanding of the (real life) characters, even those I already knew a lot about.

Mary brilliantly juxtaposes the groundbreaking works in painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, architecture, and music with the collapse of the Second Empire, the Paris Commune, the Panama Canal scandal, turbulent clashes between the Republic and the Church, economic woes, nasty anti-Semitism, and the Dreyfus Affair. The struggles and events of these years have continued to influence French politics and society right up to the present day. As McAuliffe notes in her Introductory chapter, 'The Terrible Year (1870-1871),' "Unlike Americans, the French remember their history -- perhaps because they live so closely with tangible vestiges of their past. And if Belleville and Montmartre no longer summon up the images of danger and despair that they once did, then the simmering banlieues just beyond certainly do."

The Washington Independent Review of Books noted that, "McAuliffe paints with broad, majestic strokes a world that has been lost to us or perhaps never was." I highly recommend reading Dawn simultaneously with a book called Pleasures of Paris: Daumier to Picasso (David Godine, Publisher) which is actually the catalog for an exhibit of the same name that was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (5 June - 1 September, 1991). I saw this terrific exhibit when it traveled to the former IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York (15 October - 28 December, 1991), and the catalog features color reproductions by a number of the artists highlighted in Mary's book, as well as many other illustrations and photographs. The initial chapter written by Barbara Stern Shapiro, associate curator, is an excellent overview of the period and deserves wide appreciation. She concludes it by noting that Paris suffered poverty, crime, and injustices, but when we think of the city in the second half of the 19th century we keep coming back to that image of "graces and joys." But, she writes, "it was a unique period of intoxication and excitement that could not be sustained and appropriately drew to a close with the first World War. We owe a debt to the astonishingly productive painters, printmakers, photographers, and illustrators who recorded this intense and legendary aspect of French life and who made Paris in this celebrated period the unrivaled world center for the arts." Reading these two books together is an unrivaled experience.

I caught up with Mary as she was finishing up her research on her new book with the dashing title of Clash of Crowns: William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, and Eleanor of Aquitaine - A Story of Bloodshed, Betrayal, and Revenge (also published by Rowman & Littlefield):

Q: When did you first become so interested in France and French history?
I do believe that my ears perked up at an early age when my mother spoke of her French grandmother, Juliette. Juliette was born in Geneva, Switzerland (her father was a jeweler and watchmaker), but the family came from Paris, and family legend has it that her grandfather was a good friend of Victor Hugo's and even went into exile with him. I've never been able to document that one, and I think it may be largely myth. But still, the story caught my attention—as did the quintessentially-French dessert, Ile Flottante, which my mother made for me once or twice, and which I loved. She got it from her mother, whom I assume got it from her mother—Juliette. I still order it on my first night back in Paris, every time!

Next step: My husband's work on the musical, "Les Miz," during its pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center (where he was then Director of Marketing), piqued my interest in Victor Hugo. This, as I explained in the Intro to my earlier book, "Paris Discovered," led me to track down all the sites I could find from Hugo's "Les Misérables" and "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame." A great introduction to Paris! Not long after, I learned that Paris once had walls—a series of them, in fact—and searching out the remnants took me and my husband into parts of Paris we might never have explored otherwise. One thing led to another, and eventually I found myself writing history and culture for Paris Notes for ten wonderful years. The walls of Paris also led me to you—and to inclusion of my article on the walls of Paris in your "Paris: The Collected Traveler."

Q: What was it specifically about the time period of the Belle Epoque that interested you to delve further into it?

A: Well, to begin with, it's such an incredibly rich period. But what really caught my attention for the particular span of years Dawn deals with (1871-1900) is that it begins with a triple disaster (the terrible Siege of Paris plus France's defeat at the hands of Bismrck's Germany plus the bloody Commune uprising), which left France's morale shattered and much of Paris in ruins. And yet, look at what happened in the short space of years that followed! The Impressionists, the Neo-Impressionists, Rodin, Debussy, Ravel, Bernhardt, Zola, Eiffel, Marie Curie, and so on and so on. The list of legendary characters and movements as a whole (especially the Impressionists), but little attention has been paid to the background against which these lives were lived and these achievements took place. We look back on this period as one blessed by a kind of explosion of creativity and assume that life must have been easy, a kind of bubble bath in pastel colors, but this was not the case. It was a difficult time, one of great political and economic uncertainty, and so you have the tremors that any creative person has as he or she ventures forth, coupled with the great uncertainty of the times. I wanted to view this as much as possible through the eyes of those who lived through these years, using their memoirs, diaries, correspondence. I purposefully chose a wide variety of individuals, from artists and musicians to politicians, hoteliers (Cesar Ritz), entrepreneurs (Ernest Cognacq), an anarchist (Louise Michel), and even a teenager (Julie Manet). No, I don't know of another book quite like this. Some readers have even said that it reads like a novel -- although I should emphasize that there is nothing fictional about it. The drama is real, not something that I have had to create. These three decades have a natural dramatic arc, starting with those triple disasters of 1870-71 and culminating in the shattering Dreyfus Affair.

Q: Of all the personalities, politicians, artists, and musicians highlighted in the book, do you have a fondness for some in particular?

A: I think I have fallen at least a little bit in love with each and every one of these people, although admittedly some more than others. I love Berthe Morisot and have ever since I saw an exhibition on her painting many years ago at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of her before this -- her work had pretty much disappeared into the shadows until quite recently -- and I was quite overcome by my "discovery." I still have the poster from that exhibition, framed and on our wall. I love her painting, and I love the qualities that shine through it -- her modesty, her courage, and her love. Her daughter, Julie Manet, is also enchanting. And then there is Pissarro, that gentle artist and generous friend, so much older than his colleagues, who lived in poverty for much of his long life. "The Americans can't get used to my painting," he wrote his eldest son in 1897, "which is too sad for them."

Q: You and I share a great fondness for the Musee Carnavalet, the Museum of the History of Paris, and I love that there are so many images from the museum featured in your book. The cover illustration, too, is from the Museum's collection -- how did you choose it?

A: Oh, yes -- the cover! I found it at the Carnavalet in an upstairs room, often closed, with a number of small items in a display case along one side. It's a very small painting, by the genre painter, Jean Beraud, and it was almost too easy to pass over. And yet something about it held me, and so I asked my husband to take a record shot (he does a lot of that for me). I soon decided that I definitely wanted it for an illustration, but it was my editor who immediately spotted it as a terrific cover (thank you, Susan!). It was only last May, just after Dawn was out, that my husband and I were once again in Paris and saw that the Carnavalet had chosen this same little painting for its banner. We were so excited and rushed into the museum's bookstore to show the manager and his assistant, who loved the connection and immediately said that they must have Dawn for sale there. (For the record, the book is for sale in the bookstore, but the banner is no longer up.)

Q: Your new book, just out, is obviously about an earlier and completely different time period than the Belle Epoque -- what inspired you to look backwards to the medieval era?

A: A castle. A remarkable castle, Chateau-Gaillard, just down the Seine from Paris in Les Andelys. A friend had suggested that we might find it interesting, and indeed we did. Richard Lionheart built it, and I wanted to find out everything I could about it. This led to an exploration of the borderlands between the English crown lands of Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine. I had studied medieval history in graduate school and subsequently taught it, so it was not new to me. In fact, I have always loved it. And so I have thoroughly enjoyed following the trail of this intriguing subject wherever it has led me -- including back to the Vikings. Yes, William the Conqueror and Richard Lionheart were descended from Vikings! Oddly enough, Chateau-Gaillard is located only a few minutes down the Seine from Monet's peaceful garden at Giverny, and the banks of the River Epte, which Monet so frequently painted, bristled with fortifications eight centuries ago.

Q: Researching these books required extended stays in Paris and in France. Can you share some favorite experiences while compiling these books, as well as some of your favorite things to see and do in Paris?

A: I could write another book just on this! I love to wander in Paris's parks, or simply sit in them. We often visit the place des Vosges and the Luxembourg Gardens, and of course the tiny Square du Vert-Galant at the tip of the Ile de la Cite. We also enjoy Parc Monceau and, depending on whether we are in the neighborhood, Parc Montsouris and the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. We regularly check out the Parc Floral in the Bois de Vincennes and the nearby Lac Daumesnil (the Chateau de Vincennes is terrific, too -- be sure to vist, if you've never done so). And there are lots more! We obviously enjoy wandering through and around Paris, and on rainy days (yes, there are those), we head for the Musee Carnavalet (endlessly fascinating) or the Petit Palais (I love its architecture as well as the Guimard Art Nouveau room downstairs), among other destinations. Every part of Paris has its own special attractions, some of them little known, and we enjoy finding them. This also involves a fair amount of eating, which we rarely object to! Although I must say that breakfast has its own special place in our hearts. We have a neighborhood artisanal bakery with the most incredible baguettes. In the evening I love watching Parisians en route from work carrying home their baguettes for dinner and -- unable to resist -- nibbling at the crusty end as they walk.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The reissue of Carol Field's The Italian Baker is cause for celebration (see my previous post) but I am equally delighted about the publication of a few other Italian culinary books. One was published three years ago but I only just got around to reading it: Why Italians Love to Talk About Food by Elena Kostioukovitch (forewords by Umberto Eco and Carol Field, translated by Anne Milano Appel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I admit upfront my ignorance about the author --I did not recognize Kostioukovitch's name, but it turns out she is Umberto Eco's translator in Russian and she is an essayist, literary agent, and editor and she has been living in Italy (Milan) for over twenty years. The Italian edition of this book appeared in 2006, the same year she was the recipient of the Welcome Prize, given by the Russian National Association of Restaurateurs. So as Faith Heller Willinger says, this book is "essential reading for all Italophiles." Chef Tom Colicchio calls it "part reference encyclopedia, part social history, part love letter to Italy." I call it required reading as well, but also of the most joyful kind (I love that the final chapter of the book is entitled 'Joy').

In her foreword, Carol Field writes that "of course Italians like to talk about food. Italy is food, and the food is Italy...Italians talk constantly about food even when food isn't the subject. Bring up almost anything -- painting, trees, literature, landscape, history, people, religion, even taxes or politics -- and the vocabulary of food somehow finds its way in." Kostioukovitch already suspected this but after her years-long journey to every region of Italy it was soundly proven. She also discovered that "the more you know Italy, the more it becomes evident that each community has its "gastronomic emblem," namely, a dish or product that has been developed to perfection in that place." So in each chapter Kostioukovitch outlines the history and food traditions of each region and ends with lists of typical dishes and products. Throughout the book are other, more in-depth chapters on such topics as the sagra, olive oil, pilgrims, Slow Food, Jews, democracy, the Mediterranean diet, gifts from America, pizza, etc. There are no recipes, but there are cooking methods for meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables, as well as sauces and gravies for pasta and pairings of pasta shapes and sauces.

At the end of her Preface, Kostioukovitch writes that discovering and analyzing the Italian culinary code "have absorbed me completely, drawing me under its spell - just as I was drawn in so many years ago by the country that created this code, the Italy that I will never have my fill of discovering, and that each day increases my hunger for beauty and thirst for art. I know you will understand." Indeed, many of us do.


A different book because it does have recipes, about 250 of them, is The Country Cooking of Italy by Colman Andrews (foreword by Mario Batali, Chronicle Books, 2010). But right there on the first page of the Introduction is a quotation that brings the subject of Italian cuisine back to Elena Kostioukovitch's circle: "As they ate, they spoke of eating, as always happens in Italy" (Andrea Camilleri, The Shape of Water)

Andrews has been one of my most favorite food writers and cookbook authors for many years, but this lovely hardcover (featuring photographs by the renowned team of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, who also author a great paperback series of seasonal cookbooks that I love, Canal House Cooking) might be his best book yet. (In fairness, he also wrote a book in this series on Ireland, which I haven't yet seen, so it may be equally as good.)

Like Kostioukovitch, Andrews, too, has traveled to every region of Italy, and he learned that "many of the most famous "real Italian" dishes I had encountered, even in Italy, were twentieth-century creations -- and that even so definitive a food as pasta was not a daily part of the Italian diet until about a hundred years ago." He also learned a lot about the Mediterranean Diet, mostly while researching his terrific book, Flavors of the Riviera, in which he concluded that this Diet is more romanticized than real, and that it was "more the way people eat at Chez Panisse than the way they eat, and have traditionally eaten, around the Mediterranean"). I was pleased to read that Andrews also addressed something that I've been railing about for years to any of my friends and family who will listen, which is that "for the most part, Italian cooking in its homeland, I began to figure out on my trips there, was far simpler than the gussied-up Italian American interpretations of it." As Andrews also notes, American chefs and Italian chefs who come to the States "don't seem to be able to leave well enough alone." I have found this to be particularly true in California, where so many chefs (and home cooks) can't resist gilding the lily.

Andrews was impressed by the intensity of local and regional pride for food products and dishes no matter where he traveled in Italy. "They love eating -- is it an accident that in the language of their predecessors, the Romans, the words for "eat" (edo) and "be" (sum) share an infinitive form, esse? (Edo ergo sum?) -- and they love talking about eating."

But, on to the recipes! They are just so excellent, and of course the introductory notes Andrews provides for each one are always interesting to read. Recipes from Milan, Naples, Venice, and other large cities are not the focus here, but there are plenty from the countryside around them. Andrews notes he has tried to strike a balance between including familiar dishes (done right) and more obscure ones. But no matter where the recipe is from, Andrews was always mindful that "in Italy, at least in principle, the farm is never far away from the table." He also writes that though so many culinary innovations in Italy can be traced to ancient Rome or to wealthy noblemen and merchants, he believes that "all Italian cooking is in some sense from the country, from the region, from the land. This is the key to its identity. This is what makes it great."

Recently, I made the spiced cheese spread called Liptauer that, Andrews explains, comes from Trieste. It was such a refreshing change from the usual dips and spreads and everyone commented on it (the recipe has butter, fresh ricotta, paprika, mustard seeds, cumin, anchovy filets, chives, and scallions). But the others I've tried have also been winners: Rigatoni with Cauliflower, Polenta with White Beans and Kale, White Beans Tuscan Style, and Olive Oil Cake. But I've only just begun...friends are coming for dinner on Saturday and I already have so many pages marked with sticky notes.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Author and food writer Carol Field is a well known name among Italophiles. If you are someone who is just beginning to be beguiled by Italy, someone who has not yet read all the essential books in an Italian library, you will soon discover Field. But right now is a good time to start getting acquainted with her as Ten Speed Press recently published an updated and illustrated edition of her masterpiece, The Italian Baker.

I've been a huge fan of the first edition of this book, published in 1985 by Harper Collins, and I don't even bake bread, let alone bread sticks, pizza, panforte, panettone, or pandoro. (I do, however, make a lot of soup, and Field's version of the classic Tuscan soup, Ribollita, is to my mind the best one in existence -- though curiously, in the new editon, the recipe is called Minestrone Toscana even though it appears to be identical -- and her version of Tiramisu is without rival -- the key is that it's not made with ladyfingers but with chocolate pan di Spagna.) As I have often stated in my books, really good cookbooks are far more than collections of recipes: they're great resources for learning about language, culture, and history, as well as resources for learning about the foods you'll encounter on your trip. As Fred Plotkin, author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler opines, "anyone who really, truly cares about Italy must read The Italian Baker." Additionally, if you love some of the culinary specialties you tried in Italy, you might be inspired to make them at home - to me, nothing is a better souvenir of a place than a culinary one. After I tried delicious Ricciarelli in Siena, I couldn't wait to make them at home, and Field's recipe here is a winner, as are recipes for Zaletti (those raisin cornmeal cookies from Venice), Baci di Dama (lady's kisses that I first tried in Milano), and Biscotti di Crusca (bran cookies spiked with rum).

"Bread," Field writes, "is such a basic part of life in Italy that every restaurant automatically sets it on the table and imposes a cover charge (coperto) to cover its cost. Almost every street in Italy's large and middle-sized cities seems to have at least one panificio (bakery) and pasticceria (pastry shop), and even tiny towns without bread ovens have a grocery store where bread is delivered warm in the mornings." It is significant then, and not surprising, that there are a great many Italian expressions featuring the word pane. Among my favorites that Field shares are Buono come il pane (as good as bread, said of a big-hearted, down-to-earth person); Dire pane al pane e vino al vino (to call bread bread and wine wine; to call a spade a spade); and Essere pan e cacio (to be like bread and cheese with someone; to be thick as thieves).

Field informs us that every day in Italy more than 25,000 artisan bakers rise early to knead their doughs and shape their loaves. "Knowing the story and tastes of the regional breads that come out of these ovens is like taking a trip through the Italian countryside. Saving and honoring them is like preserving the stone villages on the hillsides or their churches and frescoes, for saving the taste of the past keeps it alive in the present."

The Italian Baker was the recipient of an IACP award in 1986. Her other cookbooks include In Nonna's Kitchen (Morrow, 1997), Focaccia (Chronicle Books, 1994), and Italy in Small Bites (Harper Collins, 2004), which are also great reads and feature some wonderful recipes you'll want to make. But Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods (Harper Perennial, 1997) is one of her earlier books I consider essenziale, as well as The Hill Towns of Italy (Chronicle Books, 1997, with photographs by Richard Kauffman), which is a bit misnamed because the hill towns featured are exclusively in Tuscany and Umbria. But no matter: this book is lovely, and Field proves she knows much more about Italy than just its cuisine. As I note in my own book, Kauffman's photos are among the most unique I've ever seen of these much-photographed regions. He admits that he is a romantic, delighting in the past, "in the picturesqueness of a vanishing (or a vanished) civilization...With my camera, I avoid the roofs bristling with television antennas, the piazzas filled with Fiats (no easy task), and I strive to re-create, as best I can, the hill towns I saw some thirty years ago."

If you're already a Carol Field fan, you know I'm preaching to the choir; and if you're not yet, start reading one of her books -- The Italian Baker is a good one with which to begin -- and join the fan club!