Final letter from Paris, 2008
Here is the final in my retro stories on Paris. I am heading there yet again this year and it is time to record some past activities, observations and events.
Here is a transcript of the diary I kept back in 08………
We are running out of days and all too aware of how easy it is too get sidetracked and possibly miss out again on something we tried to fit in on our last stay. Brisbane Francophile Mary Dickinson had alerted me to the charms of a store known as ‘Deyrolle’. When we finally arrived at the address we were shocked to find that it still looked as though the fire damage in February this year had not been repaired. As we drew closer we were relieved to see they are still in business despite the derelict façade on the 1st floor. We entered the ground floor shop that stocks everything for the inner gardener in us all. They have the most chic outdoorsy apparel and such well crafted gardening tools that I could pass off as table sculptures. But we had come to see a more intriguing department of Deyrolle. We took the winding staircase at the back of the store, up one floor, taking time to pause before a framed silk scarf of a hunting theme by Hermes. It was the signal for Scene 2 Act 1. Stage left, we entered a very elegant salon, painted in soft shade of green with gold moulding, the moulding so elaborate it forms part of the art on the walls.
For all our worldliness and exhaustive travels we still let out a collective gasp as we met two sets of eyes of reclining lions, and standing directly behind them, occupying a very big space, an inelegant water buffalo.
We have seen many examples of the taxidermists’ art but the breathtakingly still (sic) white swan looking down on us from its shelf seemed downright unlawful. Two male peacocks were mounted on bases so measured to enable their plumes to lightly sweep the wood floor. We are well up on prices of these ‘items’ if anyone ever asks – €1500 each. The big-ticket items are the lions; you could pay anything from 20,000 to 35,000 euros for them. Well someone had to travel all the way to Africa and hire and pay guides, then pay a taxidermist. To give up their trophies they want big money. And to date I have naively thought the people whose homes sport these trophies did the hunting. Our friend Myles Parry is exempt.
Deyrolle also have the most extensive collections of bugs, insects, moths and butterflies. They also publish books and prints. If you want a preview of Deyrolle without going to Paris – (note the photo of a tea party set for the animals).
One night we had dinner plans that went a little askew…. we had asked the daughter of our Indooroopilly optometrist in Brisbane, Melanie Coetzee and her fiancé Nic Berry to come out to dinner. They are living in a suburb just 10 mins south of Paris outside the peripherique. Nic is contracted to play rugby for a team known as Racing Métro 92.
Mel who has a law degree has just gained an internship in a French law firm. They have a car and often drive into Paris, usually parking in one of the car parks but this night – in the confusion of their GPS not providing directions to our street they were driving around and around and had le accident at l’Odeon.
The area of l’Odeon is a very busy hub where many buses stop close to a cinema and metro. Melanie rang us in a panic and we rushed down to l’Odeon to find them in full swing with the Gendarmerie answering their 100 questions. Not simple when you have a contretemps with a bus! We took some photos with our camera for when they were needed. We were impressed with the Police’s attention to detail; they even used a wheel road marker measuring all evidence. Even the Savieur Pompier sends an ambulance type vehicle for when something untoward happens. On the way to the accident, I said to John ‘I do hope they are not in the wrong, and maybe if the police follow rugby, they will be lenient with them’.
Mel and Nic were rattled by it all and said they wanted to go home and calm down so we had to go to dinner without them. Nic rang us at the restaurant and said the policemen play rugby – and JP had scoffed at me earlier when I said it might help!
Later that night just across the road from the restaurant we noticed a small cinema advertising films screened in the original language of origin, in this case English as they had a festival on Robert Mitchum . The staff at the box office of ACTION cinema gave us all the programmes.
So another night after dinner we headed off to the second branch of ACTION in the neighbouring university area of the 5th for a screening of ‘The Stranger’ directed by and starring Orson Welles. From the traditional exterior of the cinema, we were expecting sleazy but we found a clean smart interior with comfy seats upholstered in bright red wool. It cost about the same we pay in Australia but if you wish you can buy a set of tickets for a worthwhile discount. The tickets they issued to us are like those we used in the last century, on a continuous roll inserted under the counter top with a slot to pull them through and so we were not surprised to find they do not take credit cards. This is so typical of France, everywhere modernity mixed with antiquity.
Next day we took off to shop with our shopping bag on wheels, an interim model until we really graduate to the ‘6’ wheeler trolley that cleverly rolls up and down stairs. We are undecided about which of the department store food halls are best, the Bon Marche on the Left Bank or Galerie Lafayette on the Right Bank. Not a dilemma everyone can relate to I know. But what we did discover when we went shopping early, 10.30am in Paris is early by Parisian standards, that we were in time to witness the early morning tradition of the store managers shaking the hand of every staff member. This daily most civilised ritual of goodwill would not go astray in Australia. I have seen this at the wholesale markets but that is usually between agents and customer.
After Bon Marche we walked down the fashionable rue du Bac and called into yet another chocolate shop Fouchard – with a small ‘tea’ shop in the back. Some chocolatiers have café areas but where they would have served mainly coffee and hot chocolate in the past they are now keeping up with the trend of serving tea.
There are now too many specialist tea emporiums to name, and these days all the restaurants and cafes stock the better quality tea or have a special tea menu.
The competition is tough, there are single brand salon de the’s and mixed brand salons. But if like us you want the very best service in tea, the Mariage Fres boutiques are hard to beat. We found when buying tea to take home, they were willing to give us a free sample of any tea we requested.
For a casual drink nearby we often call into the small but famous boutique hotel, simply named l’Hotel in rue des Beaux-Arts. However there is nothing simple about it. The hotel has survived and made famous because the plaque outside says that Oscar Wilde lived and died there. And more notoriety came when Jim Morrison stayed but died elsewhere in Paris. Harpers Bazaar this year voted it the ‘best urban hotel in the world’. It’s rates brochure states it belongs to ‘a curious group of hotels’. What’s not to like where, a hotel can be run by people, who describe it so. And when we ask for tea here, the best brands are put forward as we languish in its plush velvet and silk salon, and yet they are contemporary enough to do a decaf tea or coffee for JP.
The legendary Les Deux Magots (named after two male Chinese statues in wood mounted high on a ledge inside) is near us and twice this year I have had breakfast there with my French friend Christine. She often points out all the interesting people who continue to patronise it even though there is usually terrible service. The regulars put up with it so you can imagine a tourist would think it was blatant discrimination. In the same street Café de Flore and Brasserie Lipp are cashing in on their reputations gained when famous writers and philosophers used them everyday as their office to write, meet and philosophise.
Having visited Paris many times and spending a total of two months this year, we still haven’t managed to visit all that we should. For some reason I have never been compelled to visit the Concergierie as many people do on their first visit. Maybe I thought it would be ghoulish. But John said it was time and so we did. I am now pleased as it completes the story of Marie Antoinette and her contemporaries during the Revolution. So now I say a first visit to Paris could or should end at the Concergiere. In the Spring we saw the blockbuster exhibition on Marie Antoinette at the Grand Palais, whilst it was an excellent exhibition, it was way too uncomfortable to fully appreciate as there were too many people, and given that we actually had to book a certain time slot for viewing, we were not happy.
We saw the womens’ prison garden and the fountain where they washed their clothes. Of course it looks very elegant now but I can only imagine what a state it was in back in the days of the Revolution.A cell has been recreated to depict how Marie Antoinette spent her days. We entered another small room nearby that held detailed lists of the executed and a bleak mood amongst our fellow visitors was palpable. In this room are records of the peasants, bourgeoise and nobility who suffered the ultimate, under the ever sharpened blade of the guillotine. One of the main protagonists of the Revolution was citizen Maximillian Robespierre, the brilliant lawyer turned prosecutor – who ironically ended with the same fate. He was guillotined face up, the only person to be executed this way but alas we cannot benefit by whether he would recommend it as an alternative.
The Conceriergie shop stocks books on France’s history but we also found many books, puzzles and creative games for all ages that aid French children to learn about its vast layers of history, with amusement and inventiveness.
We had tended to dismiss the bookstalls along the Seine as just selling junk to tourists as most sell souvenirs as a sideline, but we discovered this time that many of these booksellers have a long respected history. In French they are called Bouquinistes, definitely not a tawdry name like ‘second hand dealer’.
There is one such Bouquiniste that interests me and it is on the Left Bank side of the Pont Neuf. It has books and prints in a range of paper media on gastronomy. I intend to return to pick up a couple of the original restaurant menus at around €25 each that I think is affordable. After enjoying them for some time I will eventually give them to the State Library of Queensland where all my cooking title books are headed.
One morning I headed off to meet Paule Caillat for her cooking class that began with shopping for the ingredients. Her butcher shop turned out to be the very one John and I patronised earlier this year when we stayed in this area. Paule gave us many useful buying tips particularly beneficial when buying meat here. In fact anyone staying in a Paris apartment and wishing to cook should do one of her food tours first so they know what to buy. The butcher had 2 metal plaques displayed on his shop wall and Paule told us they are placed there to indicate the occasion when the butchers were successful in buying the best award-winning meat. I can compare it to John Kilroy at Cha Cha Char restaurant in Brisbane when he boasts the specific meat being used on the menu when he has bought award-winning animals at the Ekka (the agricultural show for those who do not know Queensland speak).
We went back to Paule’s apartment in the 3rd where she has a large and beautiful contemporary kitchen and boasts a massive cast iron range, this one is another French brand, a Lacanche described by its manufacturer as the ‘Stradivarius of stoves’. A duel could be justified over Le Cornue and Lacanche, two stupendous stoves.
We got the food on and started the meal with a cheese tasting and a lesson on why white wine should be served with cheese. We had a un-oaked chardonnay Bourgogne 07 and it was parfait (perfect in English).
Our starter was a Cremini mushroom and Morel tart with a salad of ‘marche’ (we call it lambs lettuce in Australia). Susan said in her class I attended the night before that the French only have salad after the main course. The American’s who eat salad before the main and those obsessed by weight watching have them as substitutes for real meals in restaurants.
A chicken dish made from the ‘red’ label chicken we bought at the Boucherie. That name sounds so much more refined than butcher…who had obligingly cut off the feet, head and other unsavoury bits. I had avoided buying a whole one myself thus far as I was not sure whether I could face hacking the bird up and then disposing of its head and feet in the garbage.
We cooked it in a Le Creuset oval Doufeu (casserole) on top of the stove, with wine, shallots and leeks. The lid of the dish has a shallow indentation into which Paule placed ice cubes, you can monitor the steadiness of the cooking by the gentle simmering of the water that forms in the shallow top and beneath the condensation formed from the cubes evenly bastes the meat. When ready, we transferred it to a baking dish for a little further time in the oven and added a mixture of egg yolks whisked into crème fraiche. Our dessert was a chocolate soufflé made with the best French Valrhona chocolate. A good tip learned here – put the soufflé under a grill for a few minutes before baking to set the top.
We walked through the 7th one night which is one of the largest arrondissements, all the way to the Tour Eiffel, we love it so much that we never tire of it and seeing it at night with all the lights on is magical. We walked back past the Musee Branly (anthropological musee we visited last year) and when we were exhausted we caught a bus back. That is what is good about Paris, you can walk till you drop then before you actually do faint, find a bus or metro to return home intact.
We managed to fit in a visit to the house of Sculptor Russian born Ossip Zadkine, whose legacy to Paris includes his home and studio and a sculpture in one of the best positions in Paris. It stands opposite the St Germain de Pres church – on same side as the cafe Les Deux Magots. The musee has a programme of fostering the exchange of his work with that of guest artists. Once again the Parisian government’s cultural affairs department is to be applauded for another free museum for the public.
Anyone taking children to Paris must take them to the Parc Luxembourg’s Marionette Theatre. Like the Circue d’ hiver, this is a permanent structure. It is a tradition that has miraculously survived. Its programme is probably politically incorrect like our Punch and Judy shows but if it is in French it won’t offend too much. It only has sessions on Wednesdays and the weekends. John and I would definitely have gone in but we missed the sessions. Now I have the timetable for next time.
All through Paris the very new and the old are side by side, even in the most sophisticated parts of the city we see remnants of buildings and reminders of the commerce of Paris before Haussmann widened the streets. In our upscale neighbourhood we have a shop that still creates hand-sewn cotton mattresses. Not the thinner futon mattresses but the normal bed size thick mattresses and we watched as a man patiently sewed them by hand with a needle and thread.
Another example of past and present is the sumptuous Baccarat Musee. Housed in a beautiful mansion that uber designer Philipe Starck was commissioned to design and dress in the best that Baccarat can make. The first floor has a retail section where I fancied a set of 6 black glass ‘coupes’ designed by Jean Cocteau when he was alive of course, for Baccarat – at just €375 set– ($700) that works out at $100 each and a real steal in my eyes but not John’s. I have paid over $100 for Rosenthal plates so I might just save up for those glass coupes!
The next floor of Baccarat has a swank restaurant and museum. Worth a trip to the 16th and I know Mary Dickinson will tell me she told me so.
We have found lots more treasures in the 16th, there is a farmers market twice weekly along Ave President Wilson and in my earlier missives I mentioned the Guimet Musee of Asian art in the same street. There is also a former home to visit of writer Honore Balzac and many more places we look forward to next time.
Further down the avenue is the Musee de Tokyo; we just managed to fit it in before we leave for Australia. It is a place of experimental art and exhibitions. There is a restaurant serving good food at reasonable prices and of course like most galleries, a tempting bookshop.
I have told you about a restaurant in an earlier letter that we did not like so here is a good one you can put on your list. Le Comptoir.
A chef and his wife bought a little hotel near in the aforementioned l’Odeon location and they run the petite restaurant at the side facing the street. We asked for a reservation and they said ‘never on a Sunday night’. We took our chances as most of the good restaurants close on Sundays and only tourist restaurants are open. We waited a comfortable ten minutes, tables for two turn over easily. My girlfriend and I really enjoyed the meal and atmosphere. Monsieur was back at the apartment eating bread and cheese. Roz