Thursday, April 14, 2011

Alice B. Toklas Moves In


I never liked Gertrude Stein. I think her poems are wretched and that she was a domineering, manipulating person. I don’t know what Alice B. Toklas saw in her (maybe it was her Tender Buttons) but over a 100 years ago, in September of 1910, Alice B. Toklas became the lifetime house mate of Stein.

Gertrude who had been sharing a house with her brother Leo for many years, met Toklas in 1907. Leo and Gertrude were the children of a railroad executive who made prudent investments in San Francisco’s cable car lines, therefore making his offspring wealthy and able to travel and live without really working.

Alice would later write that when she met Gertrude Stein: "She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair." I’d like to know who her optometrist was.

Alice was a chain smoker with a slight moustache. She had a penchant for great hats and cool earrings. Every morning for an hour she manicured, buffed and painted her finger nails. In 1908 Alice used those tidy fingers to type manuscripts for Gertrude Stein.

1909 found Alice staying with Gertrude and Leo in Paris. On September 9, 1910, she moved in to 27, rue de Fleurus permanently. Toklas took the reigns of Stein's household. Leo packed his trunk in 1914.

The two women turned their Parisian home into an important artistic and literary salon, where they entertained Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and many others. Alice was an excellent cook and fond of art, decorating, tapestry and flowers. She was left to entertain the wives of many of the painters Gertrude held court with.

In 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was written by Gertrude Stein and is basically Stein’s memoirs. I enjoyed reading it, as I love reading about that time period in Paris but Ernest Hemingway called it a 'damned pitiful book'; Henri Matisse was offended by the descriptions of his wife; Georges Braque thought Stein had misconstrued Cubism; and Leo Stein deemed it to be a “farrago of lies”.

I have the The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in my collection. Used, it smells strongly of smoke and I can pretend it was actually Alice’s.

For those who are curious, the "B" in Alice B. Toklas’s name stands for Babette.


image: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and their poodle Basket. France, 1944.Photograph by Carl Mydans.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kiki de Montparnasse



The liberated Kiki was a French artists' model, and a sometime nightclub singer, actress and painter. Mainly, she was a party-girl who was found in the right place at the right time.

Kiki was born Alice Prin in 1901. Her chosen name was simply Kiki, but was also referred to as Kiki de Montparnasse.

Kiki helped shape the social scene of 1920s Paris. Known by everyone in the circle of artists and writers that flourished in Montparnasse in the '20s, she was the muse and lover of several artists including Man Ray and posed for dozens of other artists.

I have a couple of books about her including her memoirs, but notably Kiki, Artists and Lovers, 1900-1930 by Billy Kluver and Julie Martin. It's one of my Desert Island Books.

I've saved this picture (below) for a couple of years. It's from The Style Scout; a street fashion blog out of London. I thought the young subject did an admirable job of recreating Kiki's look, whether intentional or not. (I think she knew)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Crème de Menthe Trifle


I may attest that Paris is not a big pink macaron, but maybe it would enjoy this Crème de Menthe Trifle. It's  a stop-them-in-their tracks recipe I found originally in Canadian House and Home magazine. It was then called Icebox Grasshopper Cake. That sounded a little bit lowbrow and willfully old fashioned. so I redubbed it Crème de Menthe Trifle. Sorry for the bad picture - it’s my wrinkled and well-thumbed clipping.

This dessert should be made at least 4 hours prior, or even the day before – to allow the cookies to soften into cakey goodness.
Here are the ingredients:

500 mL (1 pint) carton whipping cream

500 g (16 oz) tub mascarpone cheese (or ricotta)

¾ cup sifted icing sugar

1 tsp peppermint extract

½ tsp green food colouring

1/3 cup each Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao liqueurs (or 2/3 cup chocolate milk)

4 dozen digestive biscuits.  Digestives might not be available everywhere so I've included the wiki link so you can figure out suitable alternatives.

¾ cup thick chocolate sundae syrup

1 square grated semi-sweet chocolate.

And here's what you do with the ingredients:

1. In a deep bowl, whip cream until fluffy. Reserve and refrigerate 1½ cups for the topping

2. In a large bowl, beat together the mascarpone, icing sugar, peppermint extract and food colouring. Stir in half of the remaining whipped cream, then gently fold in the rest of the whipped cream. NOT the reserved topping in the fridge.

3. In a shallow bowl combine the liqueurs (if using). Then immerse digestive biscuits one at a time into the liqueur mixture or chocolate milk; arrange biscuits in a single layer to cover the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish or trifle bowl, breaking the cookies to fit.

4. Brush the first layer of biscuits generously with the 1/3 of the chocolate topping. Layer with one third of the mascarpone mixture. Repeat with the remaining cookies, chocolate topping and mascarpone mixture to make more layers.

5. Spread the reserved whipped cream on top; Sprinkle with grated chocolate. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Makes about 15 servings.

I’ve made this recipe 3 times and it’s always well-received. It’s messy to make and you might be left with extra biscuits. I’ve only ever made it with the chocolate milk.

The silliest mistake I made was topping it with chocolate sprinkles which melted into a maroon-coloured mess that I had to hide under lashings of real grated chocolate.

I think it looks best in a glass bowl and the number of layers is really up to you. Whatever fits. I would imagine you could make a similar dish with strawberries or caramel. Maybe Cassis. or lemon curd. Hmmm.

It’s really rich and filling so one generous serving spoonful would suffice.

I hope you try it

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Mysterious Case of the Broom in the Night or The France and Belgium Caper


Names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

After dashing from platform to platform following the much-anticipated clack-clack-clack of the Gare du Nord's electronic timetable, George and I found ourselves sitting in a first-class compartment facing the overnight trip to Holland with a couple named Fred and Lucy.

Fred and Lucy were from Australia. He was a hearty-looking retired fireman. She - waspish and somewhat sinister. He talked incessantly. She said nothing. They had just arrived on the continent from the Firefighter's Olympics in California. Why they were on the train headed from Paris to Amsterdam, I don't remember.

Just before the train departed we were joined by a plain, squat, 19-year old girl named France. Fred commented on the appropriateness of her name. We agreed.

Her father was there to settle her in. France shyly told us how she was starting a new job in Brussels and was moving into her first apartment. We cooed our congratulations and wished her all the best. For a flat-warming present, her dad had given her a new broom, which she placed on the rack above her seat. An odd and clumsy present to travel with, I thought. But as France had a new place to clean, suitable nonetheless.

After a few pleasantries and some peppermints that Fred supplied, George and I extended our seat bottoms, tucked our money pouches around our necks and slept with our feet around each other. Fred and Lucy did the same. France slept upright with her chin lolling on her chest.

Usually a light sleeper, my night's rest was punctuated only by the sound of France's departure as she slid out into the dark corridor and the dawn of her new Belgian life and by the occasional volley of farts coming from Fred's direction.

As the train moved slowly and steadily through the dismal lowlands, we woke to find the back half of the train was gone. So were 900 of Lucy's American dollars. After winning it in Vegas she had wrapped the cash in tissue (why?...)and placed it in her camera bag; the camera bag that was found lying violated in the empty compartment behind us.

After a futile search for Lucy's cash and much satisfied patting of our own secure money pouches, I turned my mind to solving the mystery. The crime baffled me. A dozen potboiler scenarios ran through my head. Sherlock Holmes was famous for asserting, "When we have eliminated everything else, whatever remains, no matter how incredible, must be the truth" I hadn't taken it. Neither had George. Lucy and Fred wouldn't steal from each other. Or would they....? Had someone else entered the compartment?

Lucy looked over at me and said peevishly "We'll never see that money again, WILL WE?"

"It doesn't look that way, does it?" I replied. And with that it occurred to me that Lucy thought we had stolen it. Now nervous, I tacitly feared that Fred and Lucy were trying to frame us for the job and wanted us to either 'fess up or ante up.

Although we had agreed to help Fred and Lucy place a report with the Dutch police upon arrival, I felt virtually dragged by the ear like a naughty child throughout the station's concourse.

The four of us hurried through Centraal Station as best we could with our unsuitable suitcases. George was the only sensible packer among us. Fred's solid-sided Samsonite couldn’t be raised more that an inch off the floor. In his rush,he dropped his murderously heavy case down the full length of the escalator. If it had popped open and a half a dozen bowling balls and nine hundred dollars had popped out I wouldn't have been surprised.

At the "politie bureau" the cops asked us why we were there as well. They gave us the once-over and much to Fred's chagrin they dismissed us. Upon our departure, Fred asked for our phone number and address. Swiftly, George offered his work address. Back in Sydney, Fred and Lucy think we live at the corner of Queen and Bay.

A few minutes later while breathing somewhat easier in the queue at the tourist office, an ironic and frequent announcement warned us to "keep our belongings near as pickpockets abound".

Back home it took me a while to solve the case; embarrassing for an avid Sherlock Holmes buff. Apple-cheeked France, young and full of promise was a crook, a phoney. A scheming, pre-meditative thief. When we were lulled by the rhythm of the rails, she had taken the tool of her trade, her broom, and used it to lever Lucy's camera bag down.

Quietly and quickly she identified the bag with the cash. Confident that none of us would wake, France had ransacked Lucy's camera bag, and disappeared along with the money, her broom and the back half of the train. She made a clean sweep.

Cherchez la femme with the broom.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The French Connection - Photographs of World War 1



I am a rabid genealogist. When I'm researching my family tree online I’m like a dog with a bone. I can search for hours. Thanks to Ancestry.com and the Latter Day Saints, I’ve been able to trace my family back to the medieval swamps of Kent circa 1500.

So you can imagine how excited I was to become the owner of photographs of French soldiers taken during World War 1.

We regularly attended an
antique auction that featured pieces that had been shipped from France and sold in Oakville, about 30 minutes west of of where we live in Toronto.

Andrew Zegers was the collector, gathering all manner of antiques from the French countryside. Jon Medley was his capable auctioneer. Over the years, before the secret of this great sale got around, we managed enough courage to put up our hands to buy a plate, our dining room chairs and a carpet that the cat had a strange affection for. One sale Andrew held was basically for “seconds”; items he didn’t know what to do with.

It was there where we bought the contents of a drawer for about $40. We found silver knives, spoons and forks. About 200 “prayers” from the 1850s to the 1950s, a collection of postcards and about 8 photographs of World War 1 soldiers.

The photos had a main subject; a roly-poly mustachioed little guy of about 35. He looked 50, but they all looked older back then. There’s a picture of him on his horse; a picture of him and a Dr. Gaucherand in a trench; a picture of him at a dinner party; and a couple of photos of him larking about with his compatriots.

In the photo included above my hero has been dressed up as a German prisoner; a Boches, complete with the pointy Kaiser-style helmet. It's a pretty convincing tableau and it took me a while to figure it out.

In one of the light-hearted photos he is standing with 3 of his friends in the village of Chuignolles, apparently after lunch, laughing and pointing at one another. All the names are included but the handwriting is bad and I can’t tell if my man is Duvoy or Duroy.

 Thanks to the French Ministère de la Defénse and the website 

 http://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr, I was able to track down a couple of the soldiers listed, and unfortunately, their dates of death and where they are buried. But Duvoy or Duroy, I can't find him in the records. He might have made it through the War.

The novel by
Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement, relates how a young woman is unable to believe that her fiancé died during World War 1 and how she jumps through hoops to find him. Japrisot’s story has been turned into a movie of the same name. There's such a similarity between the images in this movie and the images I own as photographs that every time I watch the movie, I’m am further inspired to dig just a little deeper into the soldiers on my postcards. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Don't Speak to the Man at the Wheel" - A party with Toulouse-Lautrec!!


Out of all of the “Artists Table” books, i.e. Monet’s Table, Renoir’s Table, I get the impression that it was Toulouse-Lautrec who really liked to cook. He would gather friends together for sumptuous meals. Sometimes he would arrange to cook at someone else’s house.
“ A letter dated November 11, 1899 to Jacques Bizet , son of the composer,informs “ Dear Master, here is the list of fish to be obtained, Eels, (one pound), 2 gurnards, 1 hake, 1 sole, I small lobster. Seasonings: garlic, cayenne pepper, olive oil. Have all this at 5 o’clock Sunday. We will be there at 6.15 o’clock, Viaud and I. Our humble respects to Madame Bizet and to you. H.T. Lautrec. ”

I’ve read recounts of trips to summer homes in which the guests and participants wait in anticipation for Lautrec to whip out a frying pan and treat them all to an omelet or a similar fry-up. He was keen to publish a book of his own recipes, which he might have done if he hadn’t died at the age of 36. After his death, his art dealer, Maurice Joyant, found the recipes among Toulouse’s papers and had them published. Now known as 'The Art of Cuisine' by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), I have them on order as of today from Amazon. More to come!!
“In the winter of 1895 Alexandre Natanson asked Lautrec to organize the private view of the nine decorative panels ordered from Vuillard for their house at 60,avenue du Bois Boulogne. As master of ceremonies, Lautrec took care of every last detail, from the illustrated invitation promising “American and other drinks” to the creation of temporary rest rooms. The large drawing room was emptied of its valuable furniture and turned into the “Bar des Alexandre.”

“In front of a long mahogany counter were a few high stools on which drinkers could comfortably perch. A notice between two liqueur advertisements warned “Don’t speak to the man at the wheel,” in other words, the barman. Impassive, silent and virtually unrecognizable, with head and beard shaved,apart from two comical tiny patches, Lautrec was dressed in a white jacket and a waistcoat made out of the American flag. His assistant was, in an amusing juxtaposition, Maxime Dehomas, a colossus, nearly 6 ½ feet tall, dressed similarly in white”

“Some three hundred guests, the cream of Paris society, watched the manoeuvers of these two astonishing waiters, juggling their flasks and their shakers. A complete list of the drinks on offer would defy belief: champagne, port, aperitif wines….syrups, eaux-de vie, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, whisky, gin…Everything Lautrec could think of was to be found there. Nor did he omit the customary cocktail snacks, hot sauces, spices, without which everything tasted bland, Worcester sauce, cloves, nutmegs, paprika, red pepper, not to mention bitters, extracted from the bark of the shrub called the angostura”

Here’s a fairly simple and innocuous recipe for Port Wine Cobbler:

½ tbsp sugar
1 liqueur glass of redcurrant syrup
2 sherry glasses of red port

Tip the sugar into a shaker. Add the syrup and the port. Fill the shaker with ice; close and shake hard. Pour into glasses and serve with long straws and fresh fruit, cherries, etc.


À votre santé!



Quotations from Toulouse-Lautrec’s Table, Genvieve Diego-Dortignac, Jean-Bernard Naudin and Andre Daugin., Random House, New York 1993

Monday, April 4, 2011

Under Caillebotte's Umbrella




Gustave Caillebotte was a French painter and a generous patron of the Impressionists. I would hazard a guess and say most people know his work from the fitting image seen on many umbrellas available in today’s gift shops, Paris Street; Rainy Day.

Caillebotte was born August 19, 1848 into a wealthy family who had made their money in textiles and real estate during the redevelopment of Paris in the 1860s.

Multi-faceted Caillebotte had a law degree but he was also an engineer. He also attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After inheriting his father’s fortune in 1874 he befriended the Impressionists Degas, Monet, and Renoir. Caillebotte helped them to organize and fund their first major group exhibition in Paris. As the only one with any serious financial means, Caillebotte would become the main patron and supporter of the group.

In 1875, wishing to make own his public artistic debut, he submitted a painting, The Floor Scrapers, to the Paris Salon, whose jury promptly rejected it. Caillebotte then decided to exhibit the painting in a more accepting environment, and showed it at the second Impressionist group exhibition of 1876.

Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day, considered his masterpiece, was shown at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1877. It shared the spotlight with Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Ball at the Moulin de la Galette. Its massive size, almost 7 feet by 10 feet, drew a great deal of attention and dominated the 1877 exhibition which was largely organized by Caillebotte himself

The wealthy and generous, Caillebotte often underwrote the costs incurred for the exhibitions of his friend’s work. He financially supported his colleagues by constantly purchasing their paintings at inflated prices.

He himself participated in later public exhibitions and painted some 500 works although in a more realistic style than that of his friends.

Caillebotte died of pulmonary congestion in 1894. On his death, his superb collection of Impressionist paintings was left to the French government who accepted it with considerable reluctance. At the time of his death, the Impressionists were shunned and condemned by the art establishment in France. Well aware of this, Caillebotte stipulated in his will that the paintings in his collection must not end up in attics or provincial museums.

Caillebotte's collection consisted of a staggering sixty-eight paintings by various artists: nineteen by Pissarro, fourteen by Monet, ten by Renoir, 9 by Sisley, 7 by Degas, 5 by Cézanne, and 4 by Manet.

In 1897, a room named in Gustave Caillebotte’s honour opened in Paris’s Luxembourg Palace and displayed the first ever exhibition of Impressionist paintings in a French museum. It contained only 38 of the paintings that Caillebotte had left to the state. The other twenty-nine paintings (one went to Renoir as payment for executing his will) were offered to the French government in 1904, and again in 1908, and both times the government refused to take them. A change of heart in 1928 encouraged the French government to claim the paintings but they were refused. Most of the remaining works were bought by Albert C. Barnes, and are now held by the Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia.

Forty of Caillebotte's works are now housed at the Musée d'Orsay.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Luncheon of the Boating Party




Yesterday Renoir’s Table arrived on my porch. It’s a truly beautiful book. Although it contains sixty recipes, I bought it for its inspiring photographs. Amid a well-written biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s life the books collaborators Jean Bernard Naudin, Jean-Michel Charbonnier and Jacqueline Saulnier, have painstakingly recreated some of the settings of Renoir’s most famous paintings. The only things missing are the people. The setting for the Luncheon of the Boating Party is there with all its details, but it’s as if the painting’s subjects have gone down to the dock to meet the canotiers.

Renoir’s Table flawlessly melds gastronomic details with a biographical sketch of Renoir’s life. The recipes created by Jacqueline Saulnier are well-researched dishes that Renoir might have enjoyed at the time. Because recipes found in this and Saulnier’s other books contain ingredients like goose fat, blanched calves-trotters, and boar’s heads; and amounts like 14 ounces of this and 1lb. 10 ounces of that, I end up never actually following the recipes, but instead being inspired by them. Though I have to say that the Empress Rice Pudding with candied fruit looks fairly tempting and easy…

I have the honour to possess other books compiled by various combinations of these talented collaborators. Toulouse-Lautrec’s Table and Monet’s Table are equally beautiful books and because Toulouse-Lautrec really liked to cook and the recipes found in Monet’s Table are from his personal cook’s recipe book, the recipes ring a little more true.

A work of historical fiction, The Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Susan Vreeland, published by Penguin was a Christmas present. Susan Vreeland's novel centres on famous French Impressionists and their work but specifically, Renoir’s the Luncheon of the Boating Party painted in 1881. I’m not very far into the book, but the research Vreeland has done retracing Renoir's steps while creating this painting and the research into the details of French café society sound like she probably had a lot of fun. This kind of avocation is right up my alley and I envy Vreeland. Despite her dedication I find the narrative sophomoric and strained.

A few years ago I read Renoir, My Father written by Jean Renoir, his movie-producing son. I devoured that book and at that time found out a lot about the Luncheon of the Boating Party, known in French as the Le Déjeuner des Canotiers. One fact being that the seated man in the singlet is famous Impressionist promoter and painter Gustave Caillebotte.

Inquisitive by nature, while at the Toronto Reference Library, I happened upon a Paris City Directory for 1912. I found Renoir’s address on Boulevard de Rochechouart and phone number. How cool is that! I also found Colette and Picasso, but that is for another time.

While The Luncheon of the Boating Party is a very famous painting and I seem to have known it all my life, it was the Glass Man in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie that whimsically brought it into my circle of consciousness again. The Glass Man meticulously recreates the picture every year, but cannot seem to capture the essence of the one drinking girl until Amelie comes into his life.

The Luncheon of the Boating Party captures the essence of what my own private Paris is.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poisson d'Avril

The term “poisson d’Avril” is the phrase shouted out when someone falls for an April Fool’s prank in the French-speaking world. An April fish is a young and naive fish and one easily caught and reeled-in. On this day French kids fool friends by taping a paper fish to their target's back and shouting "Poisson d'Avril!" when the victim realizes he's been pranked. This is the equivalent to the North American trick of sticking a sign on a friend's back that says "Kick Me". Kids on this side of the ocean tie others' shoelaces together on April 1st or do disgusting things with ketchup packages.

There is evidence that Poisson d'Avril or April Fool's Day has been around since the early 16th century, thereby filling practical jokers with mirth for over 500 years.

In 1508, Eloy d’Amerval, a French choirmaster and composer penned a poem which includes the line, “maquereau infâme de maint homme et de mainte femme, poisson d’avril.”, which when translated roughly means "Infamous Mackerel, of many man and many woman, April Fool's". This doesn't make too much sense to me except that it says something about an infamous pimp.

In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who hatches a plan to send his servants on foolish errands on the 1st of April. The last line of each stanza has the servant saying, “I am afraid that you are trying to make me run a fool’s errand.”


During the 18th and 19th centuries a popular prank in London involved inviting unsuspecting victims to come view the annual ceremony of washing the lions in the moat at the Tower of London. The first report of it being perpetrated was recorded in the April 2, 1698 edition of the Dawk's Newsletter, wherein it says, “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed”  Gullible sightseers would make the journey to the Tower in vain, because there was no annual lion-washing ceremony. This obviously was a tradition with staying power as this ticket attests to an event happening in 1857. Oh, that Percy B. Greville, such a joker!