Monday, 14 April 2008

Romantic Paris - The Museum of Romantic Life

When the French say “Romantic” they are more likely to be refering to the school of writing, painting and music that sprang up at the end of the 18th century. Romanticism emphasized imagination and emotions over reason and intellect. Individualism, nature worship and an exaltation of physical passion were the order of the day

The famous painting by Casper David Friedrich of the lone man with his back to us gazing down from the summit of a snowy mountain is the ultimate romantic image. Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann were great romantic composers, Baudelaire, Byron and Shelley their poets.In the 19th century, this quiet neighbourhood attractednumerous Romantic artists because it mixed country life with elegance. The gathering of poets, painters and composers and the fascination with ancient Greek culture led to the hill leading down from Pigalle being called La Nouvelle Athenes. But a look at the list of names who lived here and at the lives they led will confirm that these people were conducting romantic lives in every sense of the word. Chopin, George Sand, Liszt and the Russian novelist Turgenev were all regular visitors at our first stop, a house that is now the Musee de La Vie Romantique, a five minute walk from the Metro St Georges.
In the Rue Chaptal at number 16 tucked up an alley way lined with poplarsis a tiny little patch of French country life – the Musee de la Vie Romantique. I can hear bird song at the end of the alley and there is a garden that even in winter still holds a few roses, vines and hibiscus. This ochre coloured house with its green shutters belonged to the artist,Ary Scheffer. It was the venue for Friday night gatherings of artists and writers such as Ingres, Liszt, Chopin, George Sand and Turgenev. Charles Dickens was a regular visitor for a couple of months in 1856 while sitting for Scheffer for a portrait destined for the National gallery in London.
The museum is devoted to George Sand – her family bequeathed all her memorabilia to the museum. Like her English contemporary, George Eliot, the Baronne Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin published her novels under a man’s name. George Sand was as famous for her love affairs with prominent artistic figures such as Alfred de Musset and Frederic Chopin as she was for her writing.Sand smoked a pipe, dressed as a man and wrote novels defending free love for men and women. She has even attracted the attention of Celine Dion who, in her 2007 album ‘D’Elles’ featured a song based on a love letter from Sand to Alfred de Musset.The rooms on the ground floor are reminiscent of the homes that the writer had in the neighbourhood – over-furnished, the walls lined with portraits, the shelves and occasional tables topped with busts and candelabras. A display case exhibits Sand’s jewelry and a cast of Chopin’s delicate hands. For a while, George Sand lived round the corner with Chopin at 16 Rue Pigalle. But the robust, free-spirited writer and the delicate, consumptive pianist soon went on to live in separate apartments.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Taking Tea in Paris

One day, some enterprising person will open a chain of charming tea shops in London - the coffee chains are everywhere. You can choose between a coffee shop with a blue logo, or a red logo or the omnipresent green logo. If you want a cup of tea, you wind up paying 20 pounds in a hotel or drinking out of a paper cup in the National Gallery cafe.

No such problem in Paris. The French love tea shops, love the whole ritual of 'le the a cinq heures'. (For some reason they have moved it from four to five.) And the capital is full of tea shops - some chintzy, some opulent, one or two even cosy. Here are some favourites:

1) La Duree - Rue Bonaparte

When I first moved to Paris in the 80's La Duree was an old dowager of a teashop across from the Madeleine. They served their speciality macaroons - the baffling macaroon hysteria that has blighted 21st century teashops had not yet hit - and were generally considered a nice place for older ladies to meet. A few years ago, La Duree spread its wings and can now be found on the Champs Elysees as well as this opulent address on the Rue Bonaparte. Take a table in the room that looks like an Indian prince's tent- worth it alone for the jewel-toned brocade on the banquettes - and order, oh order anything you fancy - it's all excellent and an hour or two in here, is a magical escape from the slightly weary bohemia outside the doors.

2) The Restaurant at the Musee Jacquemart Andre - Boulevard Haussmann
Jacquemart and Andre were a 19th century power couple in the Parisian art world. She was a painter. He was a banker. They collected amazing art- a whole room upstairs in their palatial home is dedicated to Renaissance painters. Downstairs is a restaurant that is all red velvet, gilded mirrors and chandeliers. A favourite of the French ladies who lunch.

3) Musee de la Vie Romantique - Winter Garden tea room - only open in summer! Rue Chaptal in the 9th
Another speciality museum - this time inspired by Chopin's paramour, the novelist George Sand. Like the English George Eliot, this woman gave herself a man's name. The little museum is devoted to the Romantic era - it looks like a French country cottage and has a 'jardin d'hiver' where they serve tea in summer.

4)A Priori The - in the Galerie Vivienne near the Place des Victoires. An American owner - bright and light. A stop for tea here is a good excuse to wander in the Galerie Vivienne - one of several romantic covered passages in this part of Paris. More about them in another post.

5) Angelina at La Maison de l'Afrique on the Rue de Rivoli. An old-established stop - more for the rich, dark hot chocolate and the fabulous French Riviera mural than tea perhaps. My French friends swear by the Mont Blanc - for my tastes a rather sickly mix of sweet chestnut puree, whipped cream and meringue. Go on a late winter afternoon, gaze out at the silhouetted figures in the Jardin des Tuileries and order the phenomenal chocolate. The French, ever concerned about our livers take care to serve a carafe of water along with the thick dark mix.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Finest Pastries in Paris

Sofia Coppola's film of Marie Antoinette chose to focus on the "Let them eat cake" cliche. The film, like the wildly over-rated, "Lost in Translation" is a waste of 2 hours of a life. Far better to spend those 2 hours on the cakes themselves. Despite the British claim to tea as both a drink and afternoon recreation, Paris is the city for great tea-shops, and the pastries that are part of them.

Here are five fabulous pastries. We'll tour the teashops in another post.

1)Millefeuille a la reglisse - La Duree.
This one sounds terrible in translation - Licorice millefeuille. I'd avoided it until a Parisian friend talked me into trying one at La Duree's Champs Elysees cafe. The pastry is 'croustillant', the creme patissiere is light and not too sweet and the licorice is subtle.
2) Crumble/fruit-rouges/pommes/rhubarbe.
This crumble is served at Cafe Bertrand right next door to Notre Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement. It is as good as anything you'll find at a village tea shop back in the crumble's English homeland. The French tend to know better than to oversweeten anything and the crumble is buttery and crunchy.
3) Fauchon, the posh deli opposite the Madeleine have recently introduced a dull little cafe on the ground floor - the only advantage I can see is that it gives a visitor a chance to try one of their excellent eclairs without schlepping it back to your hotel room. The eclair flavours rotate, rather in the way that art galleries rotate their paintings. If you are there on a day when the turquoise blue 'eclair aquatique' is available give it a try. I'm not normally attracted to blue food but this jewel-like pastry flavoured with mint and vanilla is the exception.
4) The St Marc at little, long-established Millet on my old street, the Rue St Dominique in the 7th arrondissment - it's the street that stretches from the Esplanade des Invalides to the Eiffel Tower. You'll see the St Marc in Millet's window, halfway along on your left if you are coming from the Invalides. It's a three layered, chocolate, creme patissiere and crispy caramelized topping. It has looked and tasted delicious for the 20 years that I've been eating them.
5)And finally, why not head out to Marie-Antoinette's old home in the years before it all went so terribly wrong for her. On the Rue de La Paroisse in the elegant town of Versailles, Gaulupeau, a tiny little tea-shop with room for a handful of tables serves an exquisite "Plenitude" - chocolate macaroons, dark-chocolate mousse, a chocolate ganache and crispy caramel.

Of course, there's Pierre Herme - I'll give him a post to himself next time