Featured Post

Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

                                Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely...

February 10, 2011

Ahhhhhhh, Valentimes (mine)

This I called the holiday when little, so Ms. Edna tells me. I have heard it said that all children call it Valentimes.

Here my take on the festivity...

The late John R. Fischetti was an inspired Pulitzer prize-winning political cartoonist.
The essence of a Fischetti cartoon was more than a visual experience.
It was a cram cource in the human condition.

Hamid Bahrami is one of the wittiest cartoonists I have encountered.
You will never become tired of looking at his drawings.

And my romantic/melancholy contribution from Edna St.Vincent Millay whose candle burnt brighter than most and which I read often.

(Though now, like most American poets of the early twentieth century, something of a forgotten figure, Edna St. Vincent Millay was a greatly acclaimed writer in her time, also, rather unusually for a poet, an engaging personality. A bohemian in an era when there were serious risks in stepping out of line, especially in strait-laced East coast America, she did what she wanted with her own life and without making a song and dance about it.)

Paris April 1, 1922

A mile of clean sand I will write my name here, and the trouble that is in my heart.
I will write the date and place of my birth,
What I was to be, And who I am.
I will write my forty sins, my thousand follies,
My four unspeakable acts ...
I will write the names of the cities I have fled from,
The names of the men and women I have wronged.
I will write the holy name of her I serve,
And how I serve her ill. And I will sit on the beach and let the tide come in.
I will watch with peace the great calm tongue of the tide
Licking from the sand the unclean story of my heart.

February 7, 2011

Ici Commence la Normandie (parallel hikes Ours)

Charles and I were off on our weekend hike. Baby, it was COLD here too.
If the English have a playground, it is Normandy. And, as playgrounds go, they could hardly have chosen better. If it weren’t separated by the English Channel, even the tunneled one, they would doubtless call it the garden of England-indeed many of them do. It’s a land of green pastures, rich grazing, and shaded orchards, a landscape reminiscent of their very own Sussex and south Devon, with coastlines that alternate, like their own, between pebbled beaches shadowed by towering chalk cliffs and wide, empty strands where sea and sky and land blend into the faintest divisions of color and substance.
Everyone has his favorite route across the channel-from Weymoth to Cherbourg and into the wilds of the Cotentin Peninsula, from Porthmouth to Le Havre and into the forest of Brotonne, or from Newhaven to Dieppe and up and over the rolling downlands of the Caux.
Whichever route you choose, one of the first things you notice about Normandy, particularly in its southern reaches, is just how familiar everything seems. The sense of déjà vu comes, not from fleeting memory of a past life or a past holiday, but from a knowledge-no matter how sketchy-of that band of ninetheeth-century painters who called themselves the Impressionists. Everything you see here abouts-every town and village you drive though, every beach you play and picnic on, every field of wheat and flax you pass-has its canvas equivalent in some great gallery or private collection or book of art. For this is where the great artists gathered, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Boudin, Bazille, Morisot, Sickert, Whistler, and Pissarro.

It’s the quality of light that first alerts you, just as it alerted the great the Impressionists painters who came here to record it, the way it changes the texture of color hour by hour. Even today, the painters gather here, daubing at their canvases to capture the spirit of their masters.

The coastline of Deauville is the closest coast to Paris and an easy 140-mile drive. The Cote Fleurie is essentially a Parisian destination, elegant and stylish. Towns here are more than just towns beside the sea they are international resorts in which Deauville leads the field. A friend, an old deauvillais (Norman, not Parisian) admits the town has changed, but, while he may mourn the good old days, he is sufficiently businesslike to understand the reason why. As with all Normans, though, it’s not easy getting an opinion from him. “Somethimes, you know, mistakes are made in pursuit of the holiday dollar,” is all he will say when pressed, nodding vaguely toward the town center, which looks like a kind of Rodeo-Drive-meets-Disneyland film set, strangely out of keeping with the Belle-Epoque grandeur and fin de siecle formality that surround it.

From Deauville and Trouville the coast runs a straight line west, all the way to the rugged, stony wastes of the Cotentin Peninsula, which juts out into the southern reaches of the English Channel. As you follow this route, through towns like Colleville-sur Mer, Courseulles, Arromanches-les- Baines, and Vierville-sur-Mer, it becomes increasingly difficult to resist tha call of other names and another time. But this is newsreel, not Impressionism, at work. For the beaches you pass, as wide as Daytona at low tide, are the great landing beaches of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and further west, Utah, where 156,000 Allied troops-English, French, American, Canadian, and Polish-stormed ashore on D day to take the occupying German forces by surprise. The legacy of this invasion, still part of living memory, is plain to see-war memorials in every town square, military cemeteries with their seemingly endless crisscrossing perspective of identical white crosses, and, hidden in the dunes, ominous gray bunkers too solid to be shifted. In a local bar outside Hermanville-la-Breche, a red and a green beret hang from a shelf. “I was only a young boy," recalls the patron, a ruddy faced man in his late 70’s. “But I remember them coming. I remember their uniforms. They seemed so big to me then.”

Nearly seventy years later, this spectral, ghostly coast-always quiet, always subdued, still alive with memories-is an unforgettable, if unsettling, place.
Southwest of Rouen is Normandy’s heartland- the famed dairy lands and apple orchards of the Pay d’Auge and Calvados, the steep escarpments and rough-hewn gorges of La Suisse Normande, and the forests and rushing streams of the river Orne.

Somehow you feel you’re back in the heart of things, a notion supported by the country folk themselves, who have no good opinion of Cote Fleurie. “It’s full of Parisians,” they’ll tell you with a snort of disdain. Not English, mind you. Not Americans. But Parisians. In Normandy people are tied to the land and their heritage as firmly as the great wheels of hay they bind up each summer.

Maps come in handy here, for dodging off the main thoroughfares is the only way to explore this country. How else would you find those often unlisted, unforgettable ferme-auberges offering chambres d’hote: a room timbered and creaking with age and a menu prepared the traditional Norman way-with lots of cider, Calvados, cheese, and cream.

There is a saying hereabouts that goes, “On dit Normand, on dit gourmand”-when you speak of Normandy, you speak of food. And what food! Along the coast seafood predominates-buckets of mussels, trays of shrimp and prawns, platters of oysters, baby lobsters from Honfleur. Scallops, sole and turbot from Dieppe that feature in the famous marmite dieppoise, a thick fish-soup stew.

Inland the emphasis is on meat, not only pork fed on orchard windfalls and lamb grazed on the salt marshes of southern Cotentin, but a lean and tender beef that plumps as it cooks and cuts with a single slice. There are some regional specialties which I will not mention, knowing how my American compatriots gringe at the names of these.

The single most important ingredient in any Norman dish is great dollops of crème fraiche. Either in the cooking itself, or as an accompaniment. But it’ not just the cream, or the milk or butter, that has made this province famous. It’s the great cheeses of Normandy. Neufchatel, Livarot, Pont-l’eveque, and, most celebrated of all-Camembert.

As well as cream and cheese, no true Normandy meal would be complete without a tarte aux pommes, its thin slices of apple fanned out like a perfect hand of cards under a glazed, caramel surface.

As with the cows in the fields, you have only to see the vast acreage of orchards to know that somewhere along the line you’re going to meet up with apples.

In the opinion of most Normans, and many visitors, no meal would be complete without the traditional trou normand, a healthy slug of the apple brandy they call Calvados, swigged back rather than lingered over in the middle of the meal, to clear the palate and prepare the way for even greater indulgence. At the end of the meal, the Calvados returns as a Gloria. Or two.
“This,” our friend says with pride, pouring a glass of his grandfather’s Calvados, which was put in the cask back in 1893, “is at the heart of all our products. This is what Normandy is all about.”

And as we taste the Calvados, made with apples that were grown the year Grover Cleveland was inaugurated president of the U.S., you have to admit, as hearts go, this isn’t a bad one to have.

A votre sante, Normandie! And cheers, Grover!