This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Friday, June 18, 2010


No more New Orleans gig lists for the summer, jazz fans—my wife Sylvaine and I have returned to our “other” home, in Saint Germain-en-Laye, France, where we will stay until mid-August dodging the New Orleans heat and gorging on French food.

We wasted no time on that front. Our first night back, Wednesday, June 16, we went to one of our favorite restaurants, the Brasserie du Théâtre, which specializes in traditional “bistro” food and shellfish. Our first taste of English Channel oysters brought ears to our eyes. Tears, in my case, because it made me think about the plight of our Gulf oysters in the wake of BP’s catastrophic oil spill; in Sylvaine’s case, they were tears of pure joy on rediscovering her “home style” oysters. They were outstanding. These oysters are brinier than the Louisiana version, fleshier, with a cold, deep-sea taste that you never get in the warm, brackish waters of the Gulf. They have gray-green rims and are less opaque than Louisiana oysters. They are also calibrated for size and classified by place of origin, like wine vintages—Cancal oysters, St. Vaast, Quiberon, etc. Also classified by type of oyster—fine de Claire, Spéciale, belon, papillon. Sylvaine prefers the papillons (the word in French means butterfly), smallish deep-sea oysters that have a nutlike, almost sweet flavor under their tart, iodate brininess. I like the Spéciales, bigger, somewhat fatter. They are served very cold on beds of shaved ice , which may account to some extent for the firmness of the flesh. Another big difference: the shells are clean, not mucky, and people here put them to their lips and savor the juice after the oyster has been eaten. No one would think of putting ketchup and Tabasco on their oysters here. (Nor would they dream of frying them in batter.) They just squeeze a little lemon juice on them, or vinegar with finely-chopped shallots. I also add a little black pepper. No saltines or soda crackers here; the oysters are accompanied by thin-sliced brown bread and fresh butter.

Sylvaine somewhat chauvinistically refuses to acknowledge that “her” oysters and Gulf oysters belong to the same biological species. I disagree, attributing the differences to environmental factors like water temperature and salinity. The final products, and the manner of eating them, are very different. But I like both kinds for their respective merits. And while enjoying my Spéciales No. 3, I have a little aftertaste of sadness and something almost like guilt because my fellow Louisianans are deprived of their oysters and the culture that goes with them.

After my half-dozen oysters ($20 worth!), I relished a main dish that probably few New Orleanians would be tempted to try: a steak tartar,—ground beef (filet, not hamburger meat) with a raw egg yellow, finely chopped onions, capers, Tabasco and Worscester sauce (yes, the French do use Tabasco, but not on their oysters). The tartar was accompanied by French fries as only the French (okay, maybe the Belgians) can make them.

The Brasserie itself was a welcome and familiar sight. The interior is 1930’s style deco, with white tile floors, a long wooden bar, framed photos of old French movie stars—like Jean Gabin, Louis Jouvet, and Fernandel—on the walls. Apart from the décor, a huge contrast with most New Orleans restaurants is the low decibel-level of the conversations. Though the place was packed, people here speak more softly and discreetly, and the acoustics are more sound-absorbant, so that I can actually have a conversation with Sylvaine without cocking my hand to my ear or raising my voice to make myself heard. Most New Orleans restaurants (think Galatoire’s, Clancy’s) are as noisy as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, but no one seems to mind.

The Brasserie has an open terrace that looks out on the Chateau de Saint Germain, where Louis XIV was born. Next door is the church where James II of England is buried. Exiled in France after the English kicked him out during the Glorious Revolution, he lived the latter part of his life as Louis’ guest in the Chateau de Saint German. In fact, Louis turned the whole chateau over to James and his retenue, preferring to live at Versailles or the Chateau de Marly nearby. On warm evenings, you can dine on the terrace al fresco and contemplate all this history along with your oysters.

But these are not warm evenings: since our arrival, the temperatures have been in the low 60s or high 50s even though we are in the second half of June. The locals have complained of a rainy, cold spring and early summer, but Sylvaine and I welcomed the cool weather after the near 100-degree heat and tropical humidity we left behind in New Orleans. We are wearing sweaters these days and have the heat on at home. It will get warm eventually, perhaps even into the 90s. When that happens for any prolonged period in France, it’s a national emergency. Almost no one has air conditioning in their homes, and their bodies are not conditioned to sustained high temperatures. When France had two weeks of 95-degree weather in 2003, 15,000 people died!

We had great pleasure in rediscovering our favorite local café, the Café de l’Industrie, on the central market square. On days when there is no market (there are three per week), the tables are spread out over half the square, sheltered from the sun by maroon-colored parasols. A rival café on the other corner of the square puts gray parasols over its tables,; from a distance the scene looks almost like two rival armies lining up for battle, each flying its own colors. We were greeted by our favorite waiter, Franck, who acted as if he had seen us only yesterday instead of a year ago.

We were there at breakfast time, and ordered café crème (which is what the French actually café au lait) with fresh-baked croissants. No comparison with the doughy industrial croissants we get in New Orleans coffee houses: these are light and fluffy on the inside, browned and flaky on the outside, and not at all greasy.

After breakfast, since this was a market day, we did some open-air grocery shopping. The market consists of at least 50 covered stalls, selling everything from clothes and books to fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, fruits, cheese, milk and cream, olives and nuts, flowers. Most of the vendors keep up a steady chatter, talking to the customers, joking with one another, hawking their wares with rhythmic chants. Nothing is pre-packaged. You want cheese? Tell them how much you want and they’ll slice it right there and wrap it up in colored wax paper. Same with meat—beef, veal, lamb, pork, horse, rabbit, chicken, duck. All cut and prepared to order. Ditto the fish, gutted, cleaned and scaled before your eyes.

Sylvaine bought some veal, mushrooms, new potatoes, cheese and fresh cherries for dinner. The veal here is a light beige color, not red as one finds it in most American supermarkets. When Sylvaine told this to the butcher he scoffed. “Red veal? Ha! They’re no calves, they’re broutards.” He explained that French veal is made from calves that are still drinking their mothers’ milk. Once they start to eat grass—brouter in French—their flesh turns red and no longer has the same taste. When Sylvaine prepared dinner that night, veal with sautéed mushrooms, I had to admit that the aroma coming from the kitchen was different from when she cooks veal in New Orleans. It was delicious, of course, along with the tender new potatoes served with salted country butter, and topped off by three varieties of cheese with a crunchy baguette and fresh cherries. It made me glad to be back in France, where I have spent more than half my adult life. But, as I tell Sylvaine all the time, it is pointless to constantly compare New Orleans with France. In each culture, there are wonderful things that you don’t get in the other. I try to enjoy the moment, in the present tense, wherever I am. And even though I am indulging in shamefully hedonistic pleasures over here, I am missing the things I love about New Orleans.

One big disappointment since we got back was the pathetic performance of the French football (soccer) team against Mexico in the World Cup last night. The Mexicans beat them 2 – 0 and that score did not begin to reflect the lopsided quality of play.

The Mexicans dominated the French from the first minute. Now everyone here, wistfully remembering their heady 1998 World Cup victory, wants to guillotine coach, Raymond Domenech, on the Place de la Concorde. Our son Julian sent us an email from New York right after the match that read: “Les Francais puent!” (Literal translation; The French stink.) Let’s hope the Saints don’t plummet as dramatically from their Super Bowl heights.

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