Sunday, October 25, 2009

Let's Walk: A Visit to St. Sulpice

Dan Brown's new book is out, which made me realize that I've never mentioned to you that I live within walking distance of a place that figures prominently in another of Brown's works,  The Da Vinci Code.  L'Eglise St. Sulpice is only about 10 minutes from our apartment.  We walk by it often and the other day, on just such an occasion, I made Jon take a spin inside (he's a sport like that) so that I can share it with you.  So, let's go see a famous and somewhat mysterious church in Paris.

Starting outside, we are standing in the grand courtyard of the church.  It's fountain is very impressive, and a nice place to sit on a sunny day.  Too bad today is a bit chilly and cloudy.
 


 
Turning to look at the front of the church, our view is unfortunately impeded by restoration works on the facade. It's nice that they're saving it though, and even nicer that they've provided us with a schema of how the work will progress and what the building looks like under all the scaffolding.





Luckily, we can sneak a peak of what some of the front looks like.



St. Sulpice is the second-largest church in Paris (behind Notre Dame) and is dedicated to St. Sulpitius, a 7th century Frankish bishop.  The present church dates from 1646, and took 140 years (!!!) to be completed into what we see today.  Interesting historical tid-bits about the church are that the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire were both baptized here (it didn't seem to do either of them much good), and Victor Hugo was married here.  During the Revolution, the church was transformed into a pagan temple (hence a lot of the mystery) dedicated to "The Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul."  We can still see this inscription over the door, but it's so faint, a picture with my dinky camera isn't possible.

Let's go inside.  Once we enter, on our right we see a side chapel with paintings by Delacroix.

 

He's very famous in France.  You might even recognize this one (it lives in the Louvre):

 
Liberty Leading the People

Delacroix did three friezes in this chapel (in oil and wax): On the ceiling there is Michael the Archangel, on the left there is Jacob wrestling with the Angel, and on the right there's the image of Heliodorus being smitten (smited?  smote?) by Gabriel for stealing treasure from the temple.  The paintings are good, but are showing their age- very dark and discolored from candle smoke.

As we walk down the right side of the church, we pass a few more side chapels and then come to the thing that makes St. Sulpice so famous to those of us outside of Paris: "The Rose Line" in Brown's novel.  One of the parish priests, back in the 18th century, wanted to be able to properly determine the date of Easter using the Spring Equinox, so he had a gnomon built inside the church.



 

 

 
This gnomon is essentially a giant sundial.  It consists of a marble obelisk on the north side of the church, inlaid with a brass line that crosses the floor along Paris's original north/south meridian.  An optical lens (now missing) in the south transept window focused the sun's rays on the gnomon.  Even with the missing lens, the sun still hits certain parts of the church during different times of the year:  During the spring and autumn equinox, the light hits a plaque in front of the altar; on the summer solstice it hits a plaque on the floor; and on the winter solstice, it illuminates the obelisk.  Historians believe that the scientific nature of the gnomon saved the church from utter destruction during the Revolution.  Thank Goodness.

Tearing our attention from the brass line, we continue along the right side and arrive at what I think is one of the most breath-taking Marian sculptures I've ever seen:



The picture doesn't do it justice.  It's a massive piece by Pigalle in marble with Mary, triumphant, standing amidst roiling clouds.  I mean, these clouds carved in solid rock seem to be moving out from the wall, swirling and building around the Queen of Heaven.  We need to pause here for a minute to admire the work.  We might even be able to catch a peek of the trap doors in front of her altar that lead to the crypt where 5000 bodies are buried and where a secret society used to meet during the Revolution.

Continuing along, we pass several more chapels, including one containing perhaps the biggest tub of holy water this side of Rome:

 

At the back of the church, we see the Grand Orgue.


 
 
It's incredibly impressive, and apparently very famous in the organ world.   When it was built in 1862, it was one of only three 100-stop organs in the world (apparently a big deal), and the coolest part is that from its construction until 1971, there were only two organists in charge of it!!  One guy played it for 64 years!  Historians say that is the reason why it is in such great shape today.
 
Before we leave the church, we catch sight of a massive shell set on a marble pedestal.  There's another one across the aisle too-- both serving as holy water receptacles.  They look fake at first, but they're real!  They were given to Fran├žois Ier by the Venetian Republic and set in stone by Pigalle, the guy who created the Marian sculpture.



That's it for our tour.  In researching this post, I found a reference to The Da Vinci Code and its reception by those under whose care St. Sulpice falls.  Parisians can be a bit touchy about Brown's book, especially since it is fiction and many morons out there take it as fact.  At the height of the book's popularity, it wasn't uncommon to see tourists banging around in front of the obelisk, looking for the secret space hiding the keystone (see what I mean, morons!).  I didn't see this, but the keepers of St. Sulpice felt the need at one point to put up a placard which explained the following:
 
Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this [the line in the floor] is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a Rose-Line. It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris. Please also note that the letters P and S in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, and not an imaginary Priory of Sion.

While some of what the note disclaims is actually true, I think it shows the exasperation the general Parisian public felt at the book's claims.  And we all know that the story really pissed the Vatican off.  So much so, in fact, that it refused to allow Ron Howard to film scenes inside the church.  He had to recreate it instead on a sound stage.  Funny how sometimes fiction can chafe more than the truth.  But, I heard a lot of coins hitting inside the donation box while we were there, so like it or not, Brown's imagined history has done a lot to help the reality of St. Sulpice today.  God works in mysterious ways, indeed.






Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Harry's New York Bar

Saturday's Adventurous Outing for the Houstons was a trip across the river to an institution of Franco-American relations, Harry's New York Bar.



Open for almost a century, the place is an old-fashioned, wood-paneled deal with a gorgeous tin ceiling and knick-knacks dating back to its glory days.  It reminded me a lot of the Hemingway Bar, only tremendously less expensive.  Fittingly, Harry's was one of Hem's stomping grounds-- I'm never very far from him here *sigh.*

Another of Harry's claims to fame is the invention of the Bloody Mary.  Now, a lot of bars claim to be the place where the delicious concoction was invented, so who knows what is really true, but Harry's story is that the head bartender threw it together in 1920 as a way to help the regulars get over their hangovers from the night before.  Judging by the way Hem and his crew drank, I'm not surprised by the need for a Cure.  Jon and I decided to try one for ourselves to see how "The Original" held up to others.



Combined with a chien chaud (or two), I'd say not bad.  A little too much Worcestershire for my taste, but by far the only decent Bloody I've found this side of the Atlantic. 

But, it was obvious by the sheer volume of whiskey bottles covering the walls on both sides of the bar that one should not pretend to visit Harry's without sampling some of the golden drop.  There was a whole shelf dedicated just to bourbon-- how could I resist?  We ordered a Maker's Mark Old-Fashioned next.  Wowsers!!!



 This led, of course, to a long chat with the bartender, Gerard, about jazz and whisky (he let us taste a 30 year) and an afternoon in dire need of nap time.  We didn't leave, however, before writing down the recipe for the Old-Fashioned and making sure the University of Florida was represented amongst the many pennants decorating the walls and ceiling of the bar.  Mission accomplished on all fronts, although I think I should bring Harry's an updated UF flag...


 
 
Harry's Old-Fashioned
In an old-fashioned glass, add:
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • 1 Maraschino cherry
Mash/Muddle.

Add ice and fill the glass 3/4 full with whiskey or bourbon.  Mix.

Add:
  • 1 orange slice
  • 1 lemon slice
  • 1 brandied cherry (this almost killed me-- Dad, your recipe has a run for its money!
Mix.  Serve.  Sip.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sublime Stitching

Last Thursday evening, I had the chance to attend the opening of an exhibition of fiber artists at a small gallery in the Marais.  The show, entitled "Fils Croises," highlights the works of several artists, one among them being Jenny Hart, the uber-cool creator of Sublime Stitching.  Here's Jenny in all her glory:


photo by Aubrey Edwards for Juxtapoz magazine, from www.jennyhart.net/about
 
Many of you might not know this, but I am quite the craft-addict at heart, particularly those crafts relating to threads (mainly knitting, embroidery, and sewing).  I used to do A LOT of stitchin' when I was younger, but college and then work and well grown-up life took over and my sewing fell to the wayside.  But, seeing as how I have more free time on my hands here than I know what to do with and since Paris is one of the thread capitals of the world, I've recently found a renewed love of all things stitchin' related.  Included in this love is my "daily reading" of crafty blogs, which is how I have somehow managed to get a writing assignment for a new online-magazine called "Needle."  The assignment?  Interview Miss Hart for the mag.

I was nervous about this.  I mean, she looks SO cool.  And, her work is SO cool.  I was worried about interrupting her opening night at the gallery.  I needn't have been so silly.  Jenny was SO nice.  She chatted with me for at least 20 minutes, answering all of my questions and filling in any gaps my questioning might have missed.  I think the neatest thing about her, besides her work of course, is the amazing fact that she only learned how to embroider 9 years ago!!  I mean, this is amazing!  Take a look at her work here or here.  Not only is the woman prolific, she's really good.  She also runs an amazingly successful company (Sublime Stitching in case you missed it earlier) that she is very proud of having built all by herself in less than a decade.  I found her to be inspiring, as well as kind.  Her philosophy is that anyone can stitch, and she designs her products around that.  If you look through her tutorials on her website, you'll see what I mean.  I'm ordering her books as soon as I get back to the States, so watch out, friends!  I think they'll be more than one baby or mamma running around with a bitchin' stitch on their shirt-fronts done by yours truly!  Oh and the drum-set on a tee for Jonny?  That too.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Imagine... Fall Weather in October!!

Jon says I'm like an old woman with the way I talk about the weather, but I can't help it!  I've spent 30 years prior to this one in a pretty constant climate- h.o.t.  Yes, we do get cold in North Florida, but not until January, and Fall starts in November, maybe.  So, I'm enthralled!  It was in the 30s last night and today is nippy and fresh- just 50 degrees!  Can you believe it??!!


When I was out walking the other day, I came across this sight at the Tuileries Garden (you might need to click on the pic to do it justice):



I think it's the perfect statement of the current weather.  On one side, summer in all its glory is hanging on for dear life. On the other, Fall has taken hold quite securely.



Above, a closer look of the scene: flowers and green grass in the foreground with a wood of falling chestnut leaves in the back.  The kids seemed to like the woody part better.  I caught a rousing game of cache-cache (Hide-and-Go-Seek) in progress:


Of course, this chilly weather made decorating for Halloween a necessity.  There isn't a sign of Halloween here in France.  I know that a few costume parties will take place on the night of, but in general, Halloween commercialism is a thoroughly American thing (of course).  So, I made my own decorations.  I think they turned out well.




We'll draw faces on the pumpkins this weekend.  And the apples came from Sunday's market-- delicious and just picked!  I love food in France.

Speaking of which... Jon's on dinner service these days, so I've been on my own for the evening meal.  Last night, with the nip in the air, I wanted to sit in a cozy spot eating a hearty meal with a glass of red wine and my book as a date.  I think the mission was accomplished:



Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jon's Got Skillz...With Crustaceans.


It seems like Jon comes home from work every day with a new skill.  His focus last week was on crustaceans, especially langoustines.  We don't really eat these in the States (at least not in Florida), but they are really good!  The easiest way I can describe them is as being a cross between a shrimp and a lobster.  Since he wanted to demonstrate his skillz to me, Jon cooked Saturday night's dinner with langoustines as the main ingredient.


The official name of the dish was "Pan-Seared Langoustines with Lemon Gnocchi and Sauce Bisque" (I know because I made Jon give it a name).  First he prepared the langoustines and started the bisque.



Then he made the dough for the gnocchi.  I didn't know that Jon even knew how to make the little balls of pasta-y goodness, but this is apparently another skill he's picked up lately.  He explained all about gnocchi to me, and then taught me how to make them.  It was so fun!  I think this would be a really simple, and entertaining thing to make with bigger kids.  But, we both decided that even little 'uns could help press the dough onto the fork.  I'll give the recipe below, but here are some pics to help demonstrate a few of the steps.


 
After making your dough, roll it out onto a floured surface and divide it into even pieces.
 

Take one of the pieces and press it onto the tines of a fork (it helps to flour those too).
 

Roll the dough back one roll and press hard into the fork (nice nail polish, no?)



Roll the half tube back one more time to make a complete pillow.  Easy!

 

As you can see, I was really concentrating on the job at hand.

 

Can you tell which ones are mine?  Me neither, they were that good. HAHAHAHAHA!


After prepping all the gnocchi, we had to wait for the bisque to finish up.  Once that happened, Jon cooked the gnocchi in butter and sauteed the langoustines.  The finished dish was delicious and different.  Tres bien, mon cheri!  
 

"Pan-Seared Langoustines with Lemon Gnocchi and Sauce Bisque"


Jon's Easy Gnocchi

Ingredients (all amounts are approximate)

  • Mashed potatoes (aprox 2.5 lbs)... we have no means of mashing potatoes, so Jon bought refrigerated pre-made (I know, I know), BUT-- they worked really well and made the dish easy!
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 large egg
  • Zest of 1 lemon OR Bruniose of 1/2 a lemon (this is a tiny, tiny dice)
  • Salt to taste
  • Grated nutmeg, to taste

Preparation
    Making the Gnocchi

  • Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl.
  • On a floured surface, knead the mixture until a firm dough forms.
  • Roll the dough out a bit at a time into a tube shape and then cut it into mini-Tootsie Roll-sized pieces. 
  • Press each piece onto a floured fork and roll up (see photos).  Voila- you have a little gnocchi.  I will say that it does take a bit of practice.  My first few looked more like balls of misshapen Silly Putty, but I got it down after a while.
   Cooking the Gnocchi
  • You probably will want to cook the gnocchi in two batches- they need room to wiggle in the pot.
  • Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil.
  • Drop in the gnocchi and cook until they float.
  • Remove from water and drain in a colander for 2 mins.
  • Gently sautee them in a pan of foaming butter (the stage just before it turns brown) until reheated, aprox 1-2 mins.
  • Dig in!
Jon mentioned that gnocchi would be a good dish for a dinner party, because you can make them ahead of time: Instead of draining the boiled gnocchi in a colander, drop them straight into an ice bath.  Drain and lightly coat with a neutral oil, like veggie or grapeseed.  Then line them up on a tray, cover with plastic wrap, and stick them in the fridge until you're ready to pan sautee them. 

The day after he made this dish, I picked up the latest copy of "Food and Wine" (I was looking for "Gourmet," but alas, there were no copies left in Paris-- moment of silence, please).  Imagine my excitement when I saw that there is a whole article on making gnocchi in the October edition of "F & W" (p. 166).  It also has two "superfast" sauces for serving over the little guys.  Looks like Jon's on the cutting edge of cuisine (or I'm just biased.  Both are possible).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hooray for Being Homeless!


After almost 18 months on the market, our sweet house on Silverwood Lane has found a new family.  I'm glad-- it wasn't made for lying empty.  We had a lot of fun in that place, but our plans have obviously changed from when we bought it four years ago.  And the best part?  No More Mortgage Payments!!

Lucky for us, the sale of the house timed perfectly with the start of oyster season here in France.  Jon and I both L-O-V-E oysters!  We've been deprived since May (you can always get them here, but they really aren't any good over the hot months), so celebrating our new homeless state seemed like the perfect occasion to get slurping!  We dolled ourselves up and headed down the street to the Hotel Lutetia and its brasserie, where we treated ourselves to a bottle of champagne and the grand plateau.  Delectable heaven!!


 Jon smiles at the challenge before us!



Knives?  We don't need no stinkin' knives (or most of those other things either).


A new discovery of deliciousness-- sea snails, the olives of the ocean!

 

Look at that little bugger-- salty and delicious (doesn't it kind of look like Ursela's body from "The Little Mermaid?"

 

We accepted the challenge and arose victorious, if not a bit fatigued...

 

... but there's always room (and energy) for dessert, of course.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Proust Questionnaire


I'm working on a new feature for the AWG Website- a "Meet the Board Members" spot in the form of a Proustian Questionnaire. If you read "Vanity Fair," you'll recognize the format as the last page of every issue- the one where a famous person answers questions about his or her esprit.

For those who don't know, Proust was a French intellectual and writer whose weighty tome, A la recherce du temps perdu, has overwhelmed and intidmidated many a student of French literature. I will say, however, that his famous description of the taste of a madeleine (a delicious French tea cake) transporting him back in time to a distant memory is one of my favorite images in literature, perhaps because it is so true. Don't we all have those Proustian moments when biting into a sweet or smelling something cooking creates in our minds powerful images of times past? It happens to me often, and after my memory recedes, I always, always think of Proust's madeleines. I'm knutz-- I know.

Back to the point: The Proust Questionnaire is based on a popular party game from the late 19th century, wherein guests were asked to answer certain soul-searching questions which were then shared around the room, and everyone oohed and awwed and enjoyed learning deep things about their friends. Thrilling, I know, but this is what happened when people didn't have t.v. or Wii. The questions are now called "Proustian" because he answered them twice in his life, as a young teenager and then later as a young man, and the change in his answers apparently shows the depths of his literary genius. I can't attest to that, but I can say that answering these questions is an intellectual challenge. They really make you think about yourself, and the results are fun. I just did it and thought I'd share my answers, just for shits and giggles. Maybe you might want to play along too? If so, leave your answers in the comments or link to a similar post on your blog.


Here goes... Kate's Proustian Questionnaire, Age 30.

- What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

My education.


- What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Comfort—a cozy couch, a glass of red wine, a crackling fire, a good book, a dog at my feet (or on them, whichever the case may be)


- What is your current state of mind?

I am Unsure.


- What is your favorite occupation?

Reading


- What is your most treasured possession?

My wedding ring.


- What is your favorite journey?

To a new place.


- What is your most marked characteristic?

My good looks. No really—my sense of humor? I have no idea.


- When and where were you happiest?

Childhood.


- What is it that you most dislike?

A lie.


- What is your greatest fear?

Death.


- What is your greatest extravagance?

Books.


- What living person do you most admire?

My mother.


- What is your greatest regret?

Not getting a useful degree.


- Which talent would you most like to have?

To play the piano.


- Where would you like to live?

Near friends.


- What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Being incapable of providing for oneself or one’s family.


- What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Independence.


- What is the quality you most like in a man?

Responsibility.


- What is your most admirable trait?

Intelligence.


- What is your most deplorable trait?

Self-centeredness.


- What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Insincerity.


- What do you most value in your friends?

Lovingness.


- Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

James Bond.


- Who are your heroes in real life?

Those who attempt to improve life for others.


- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Being good.


- Who are your favorite writers?

Hemingway, Shakespeare.


- On what occasions do you lie?

When necessary.


- Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Like- I use it entirely too much-- makes me sound like a Valley Girl.


- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

My career (or lack thereof).


- What are your favorite names?

Jack, Elizabeth, Bernard (must be spoken with a British accent, “Ber-nerd”)


- How would you like to die?

Without knowing.


- If you were to die and could come back as a person or thing, what would it be?

A beloved dog.


- What is your motto?

“If you’re going to do something, do it right the first time.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Another "Free" Lance Article

I received a rather crazed email from someone who shall not be named (ah-hem) implying that my silence here was attributed to possible espionage activities-- perhaps I'd gotten abducted by enemy agents and was lying forgotten in a dank basement somewhere while waiting for the government to pay my ransom? But since I'm not a spy (but think it would be fun if I were (aside from the kidnapping of course)... that would make quite a statement on a business card, wouldn't it? Kate Houston - International Espionage), you can chalk up my lack of posts lately to the fact that I took a little hop up to London for the weekend to play with Jamie and Steve. We had tons o' fun, and we never even left Chiswick!

Aside from train rides and too much wine, how else have I been keeping myself busy lately, you ask? Well, I've been very crafty and am currently working on several Christmas gift projects (Family- you are fairly warned), and I've been volunteering for the AWG, the American Women's Group of Paris. Now, anyone who knows me, knows that I am SO not the Junior League type. I barely made it out of two years of sorority life alive! But, this group couldn't be further from what I initially thought it would be. Instead of lots of boring requirements before any fun can be had, this group exists mainly to provide the Anglo residents of Paris with a means to socialize. Yes, there are many charity activities one can participate in, but during any given week, I can also tour a museum, go to an antiques auction, a fashion show, or sample wine with an expert. In other words, it's a lot of fun! And, because I needed something to do, I offered to help out in the office. This quickly turned into my wowing the ladies with my oh so exceptional computer skills (you should be chuckling now) to the point that I am now producing the weekly newsletter (okay- make that, you should be guffawing). I am also writing articles for the website, the first of which was just published: http://www.awgparis.org/2008/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=76&Itemid=69. I know- the photos are wonky (I had nothing to do with that), but the writing is all mine. And unlike that horrid harpy over at the Shakespeare site, my editor here did not impede on the integrity of my work. So while I'm not going to be paid for this (sorry, Dad), I'm enjoying the fact that I am serving a greater purpose than just fulfilling my own daily desires. That's not a bad feeling at all.

And, just to keep all in the loop as to The Broad's non-abroad life, the house closes tomorrow. That's right, as of 3 pm on October 7, Hubby and I will no longer be home-owners. THANK BLOODY GOD!!!! This also means that the adventure, while drawing to a close in Paris, is no where near over. Goody!