|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE THREE|
|A Mule in Rouen - an excerpt|
by Rob Silverstone
The cliffs [at Étretat] are indeed spectacular. Laminated layers of chalk shining in the sun, harp-shaped pathways worn by the waves, sabre-toothed fragments marooned at sea. Signs on the beach emblazon the perils of incoming tides and falling rocks. 'Danger Vertigo' would be a useful addition because, believe me, if you have never before suffered from heights, the sheer drop at Étretat provides certain initiation. A sort of disorientation sets in as you totter around the clifftops, suddenly realizing there is just one tufted footstep between you and oblivion. You indulge in a little mental coaxing to dispel the lure of the abyss and encroaching immobility. All this on a perfectly calm day. Throw in a gale and some dampness underfoot and the experience would be complete.
in the village, mild euphoria gave way to a sense of exhaustion.
Ambled into an olde worlde hotel and drank excellent coffee in front
of a hearthful of warm embers. All motivation to move was fast disappearing,
but I wanted to reach the station before nightfall and found myself on
the platform at Breuté-Beuzeville, watching the sun set red among
soft pillows of cloud. Darkness enclosed the slow, stopping train,
and at Rouen shards of fog insinuated their way inside the station concourse.
I climbed the hill home, half expecting a horse and carriage to come swirling
'round the corner with Holmes disguised as a coachman. A subtle scent
of wood smoke suffused the flat, and I drew the velvet curtains to keep
the mist at bay.
The next morning the fog lifted, but not before petrifying every last particle of air. A few wisps of mist flirted with the cathedral spire and the cranes on the docks, melding into a grey dome enclosing every exhalation from the great chimneys of Rouen. These conditions persisted for several days, the dampness penetrating multiple layers of clothing and ultimately the mind. Jean-Claude looked shocked and disoriented by the cold. The patron of the Metropole, normally so upright, who has run the café for nearly sixty years, was unshaven and unable to set up his tables and chairs. Every primal instinct pointed to gathering a few choice nuts and hibernating in a warm, quiet place. One step up the evolutionary ladder, I burrowed into the library to discover more about La Cuisine Normande.
It all began in the year 912 when Charles the Simple, King of Paris, ceded the lands occupied by Rollon the Viking stretching from Cotentin to the Seine. The word Norman derives from Rollon the 'North man'. There has never been a Norman language, but the region acquired a distinctive form of cookery based upon three abundant sources: milk, fish and apples. The countryside is so rich in pasture it is said that "White gold runs through the veins of Normandy". Strangely, it is nearly impossible to buy fresh milk in the shops -- it all goes into making cream, butter and cheese. There are twenty-one Norman cheeses, most varieties protected by 'appellation d'origine controlée', a system of quality control similar to wine, defining the region and method of production. A Camembert de Normandie, for example, has to be made from raw milk and culture of penicillin candidum. Camembert, Pont l'Eveque, Neufchatel and Livarot are considered the four great regional cheeses. Pont l 'Eveque and Livarot share a light, clean flavor and a firm but yielding texture. Neufchatel is richer and creamier and comes in various shapes and sizes. The heart-shaped Neufchatel dates back the Hundred Years War when French peasant women needed a symbol to express their love for the English soldiers.
Normandy cream and butter possess a wonderful flavor, which helps make Rouen a town famous for patisserie. There is an indecent number of pastry shops around the old market square, their window displays pure works of art. Brioche, a light but rich bread made with butter and eggs, takes pride of place on a Sunday, and there are special pastries for different times of the year. Just now, it is the Gâteau du Roi, a golden galette of puff pastry baked in the shape of a crown. It dates back to a feast day celebrating the mythical king Saturn. All the ships in port were lit up, every tradesman sent presents to their customers, the bakers bringing cakes to every door. There was music, partying, story-telling and all the bells of Rouen rang out. A bean was hidden in the gâteau, and whoever found it became king or queen for the day, toasted with the cry of "Le roi boit" (the King drinks).
A century earlier, that boat from Fécamp with the orphaned boy on board, would probably have been fishing for cod, then preserving the catch as sea. You still see salt cod lying stiff and white at market. Oysters are a relative newcomer to Normandy, but the coastal waters have long been famous for scallops that hop along the sea bed about seventy yards down. Their fishing is strictly regulated now and a clever scallop can live to up to twenty years. Cream, orange and plump in their shells, they are proudly displayed on the quayside at Dieppe. Mussels are everywhere in the coastal restaurants, enormous tureens keeping you prising and slurping for hours. . . There is a huge variety of fish available: whiting, guernard, bream, red mullet and every type of flat fish. The celebrated 'sole Normande' comes with a seafood sauce often cooked in cider. The sauces tend to go overboard on cream and butter, which can smother the delicate flavor of the fish, not to mention the old arteries.
In Normandy, as elsewhere in France, it is almost impossible to eat out if you are vegetarian. Probably the most un-vegetarian dish in the world is Tripe à la mode ce Caen. The stomach of an ox, pig or sheep is washed, blanched and cut up small. This is mixed in a big pot with boned calves feet, bacon rind, onion, carrot, garlic and cloves, covered with cider and Calvados, and left to bubble gently all day in a low oven. The liquor is strained over the tripe which is eaten hot or set in its own jelly. Another local specialty is the boudin blanc, a plump white sausage traditionally made from pork, eggs and milk. There are, in fact, limitless variations, and I have even seen a recipe using fish fillets, roast poultry and calf sweetbreads. The charcutier at the bottom of rue Beauvoisine boasts an impressive silver trophy beside his tray of boudin blanc. Small consolation on the vegetarian front: the same shop also makes an awesome potage de légumes!
With all these savory dishes, you already see the emergence of the apple. Cod sautéed in apple. Duck with baked cinnamon apple. Pork stuffed inside an apple. There is even a day off work to celebrate the mighty apple. The region has twenty principal varieties of eating apples with lyrical names like Muscadet de Dieppe and La Doux Joseph. Cookers are a separate breed -- Clochard, Rambaud, Bénédictin -- used to make famous Tarte Normande. Every dessert menu carries this dish and none taste alike. Some are meltingly soft; others charred to a caramelized crispness. For cidermaking, finely tuned palates categorize the apples for their sweet, sour, bitter and acid qualities. Most ciders are drawn from 40% bitter and 40% sweet apples, the balance providing the distinctive flavor. A great deal of local cider is distilled and aged in wood to produce Calvados. Le trou Normand is the tradition of drinking a tot of old 'calva' between the courses of a large meal, the liqueur stimulating the stomach to make way for the next dish. Everywhere you see le trou Normand above a dinky restaurant, cottage or boutique, but really it is just the local ploy to facilitate a big feed.
Wherever you go, food plays an integral part in the heritage of Normandy, linking the land with the habits of daily life and even shaping how the world is perceived. Guy de Maupassant expressed this aspect of Norman pride in 'Le Horla":
"I love this country and I love to live here,
worked for many years as a chef in Oxford, Copenhagen and Nice, as well
as completing a 'stage' in Michel Guérards'
he opened 'The Cook & Fiddle' on the Brighton seafront, using fish
from the local fishermen, Sussex High Weald cheeses
by Rob Silverstone]
FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS: A Bright Idea for Winter
In Lyon, France, there are four days in December when the very laws of nature seem not to exist. Each evening, as the sun dips behind Fourvière Hill, the city dazzles with illuminated apparitions. In a plane tree on Bellecour Place, I saw hundreds of birds appear to flap wildly. Inside the elegant opera house, giant red flames soared toward the ceiling. The staid Sofitel Hotel turned turquoise, while throughout the city all the fountains spurted blue ink. I walked through the Place des Jacobins to see the dignified statue of the Jacobins now a riot of cartoon colors while above, a poem by Baudelaire, hundreds of meters high, streaked across the windows of the town hall. Just as startling, the two rivers that cradle this city, the Saône and the Rhône, shimmered in the reflected lights of their 29 bridges, so that the water looked like the luminous silk for which this ancient city is famous.
No, I hadn't had too many glasses of Beaujolais. The optical illusions are an intentional part of Lyon's Festival of Lights, when the surreal and the sensational meet for four merry days. If Paris is known as the City of Light, then Lyon, France's second largest city, is indisputably, the City of Lights.
La Fête de Lumières, as it is called, is unique. With 500,000 visitors to the festival each year, the city not only turns on the lights, (267 illuminated public buildings) but turns on the charm. Local and visiting dance, theater and music groups, many of them performing in the streets, transform this elegant city into a brightly-lit playground. Ironically, it was the darkness of the Black Death the plague in the early seventeenth century that gave rise to this light-worshipping holiday. When the Lyonnais were delivered from the scourge that swept through the Rhônes-Alpes, they gave thanks to the Virgin by placing small white candles on their apartment balconies. Today, while still retaining its religious component as it coincides with the Celebration of the Immaculate Conception, Lyon's Festival of Lights is primarily secular even irreverent. It has evolved into a tribute, not so much to the Virgin, as to the intellectual light of Lyon's men and women, who for thousands of years have contributed to their civilization, what the Lyon citizens proudly call their patrimoine their patrimony.
All art is light, the director of the festival, A. Chabert, told me. From the cave paintings of Lascaux, to the Impressionists, to the Lumière brothers who, right here in Lyon, invented the cinema, art is about light. About illuminating bringing visions and ideas to the fore and highlighting something important we want others to know and feel.
In Lyon then, The Feast of Lights is not just a visual delight, but a means to confirm to both its citizens and visitors what the city cares about. In the Old City, the largest Renaissance townscape in Europe and a UNESCO heritage site, Lyon history is illuminated. In the 15th century indoor passageways called traboules, unique to Lyon, I walked at night down from Fouvrière Hill, and as I went, I saw projected images that placed me right inside historical scenes. Traveling in these secret passageways from the ramparts of the city to its heart, Roman soldiers, Renaissance silk merchants and World War II resistance fighters appeared like ghosts, enlightening their own worlds for the strollers through music and dialogue. And, as I descended into the city and emerged from the traboules, I saw thousands of candles flickering on the balconies of the apartments making the city compete in beauty with its own starry, winter sky.
Medieval parades, 40-foot high puppets, stunning laser spectacles, Brazilian samba dancers, and a complete re-creation of the sinking of the Titanic, are just a few of the dozens of events that might occur simultaneously about the city for the four-day festival. Lyon, once thought of as a dour, working city, now shows itself to be what it always was at heart a center for beauty and imagination. André Soulier, the deputy Mayor of Lyon, puts it more romantically, more French. Lyon is like a woman who has been veiled and kept at home for no one to see and appreciate her beauty. But now we have unveiled her for all to admire.
Beyond the festival, I enjoyed the other glories of Lyon. Kinder and gentler than Paris, Lyon has little traffic, numerous pedestrian malls, beautiful parks, a warmer climate, and a tranquil ambiance. With 30 museums, 52 theaters and more than a hundred art galleries, Lyon is a cultural treasure trove. It is the home of the famous Guignol puppets and of French silk weaving (Hermès is here). As Lugdunum, the great capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon is rich with archaeological sites including an aqueduct, amphitheater and a fine Roman antiquities museum. But perhaps most famously, Lyon is the home of French gastronomy, which the good people here refer to as one of the fine arts. So, if Lyon is the gourmet capital of France and France is the gourmet capital of the world, then to many, Lyon is the gourmet capital of the galaxy. Need I say more?
Schur is an award winning travel writer whose essays have appeared in the
Christian Science Monitor,
property of Maxine Rose Schur.
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