Wednesday, November 25, 2009

History of French Haute Cuisine

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the States. As it is a "normal" school and work day here, we won't be cooking or hosting or being hosted. So, I'm reduced to reading about everyone else's dinner plans on Facebook! While missing the tastes and companionship associated with my favorite US holiday, I got to thinking about the history of French Haute Cuisine, or fine dining. I then remembered this little "text box" from my upcoming Time Traveler Paris Tours chapter on the French Revolution: Beware Madame La Guillotine.

Enjoy! And Happy Thanksgiving...

Have you ever wondered why France is so famous for La Haute Cuisine? Well, the answer lies with the French Revolution. You see, prior to the Revolution, the finest chefs in France worked in the grand kitchens of the grandest chateaux of the royal and noble families. When the Revolution began to gather momentum, many royals and nobles fled, leaving their cooks and other kitchen staff without a livelihood. These individuals packed up their former employers' pots and pans and moved to Paris to open restaurants, serving the tastes of the growing numbers of revolutionary bourgeoisie.

One such example is the Grand Véfour, the oldest restaurant in Paris, which has occupied the same Palais Royal location for more than 200 years.
Thus, French Haute Cuisine was born, and continues to thrive the world over today. Case in point: It can take up to three months to get a reservation at the Grand Véfour!

Le Grand
Véfour, photo by the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

120 Years of the Eiffel Tower Celebrated...Finally!

I spent the month of March, 2009, posting about the Eiffel Tower. It was my way of building up to the 120th birthday of Gustav Eiffel's remarkable Iron Lady. Erected for the 1889 World's Fair and slated to stand for only 20 years, Eiffel's "Grand A over the Champs" continues to survive, and inspire, today. Eiffel first inaugurated the Tower on 31 March 1889, climbing 1710 steps and planting a French flag at her peak to kick off the Fair. Yet the same date in 2009 passed quietly by; the Tower's birthday seemed to come and go unnoticed, save for a summer exhibition of Eiffel's life and work at the Paris Hotel de Ville.

on 22 October 2009, the Eiffel Tower lit up the sky, compelling Parisians to turn out in droves, every night since, on the Trocadero plaza. The Uber-Mensch (UM) and I caught a sideways view of the show from our apartment balcony a few days later. We scooped up the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) and went out to see the 12-minute gift of 400 flashing multi-colored LED spotlights this past weekend.

You have until 31 December 2009 to catch it. Shows are at 8, 9, 10, 11 pm every night. If you can't make it, here's the moment captured on camera by Susan Oubari:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paris Catacombs Closed Indefinitely!

I know! I know! The most basic blogging tenet is to post regularly and often. And here I am, not even blogging for a year, and I’ve already blown it! But with good reason, readers, with good reason...

For The Time Traveler Tours are, indeed, going live! And I’ve spent the last month up to my eyeballs in administrative preparations such as: designing a logo; building a website; filing for incorporation and trademark rights; laying out the first prototype chapter for use by a group of 13-year-olds set to pilot the tour later this month; etc. It’s all very exciting!

But there’s a rub: One of my three start-up chapters may be stillborn thanks to the work of vandals...

Yesterday was All Saints’ Day in France, a culture whose many holidays and celebrations do not include Halloween. So I agreed to take the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) and a few of her North American compatriots - all pining for the ghoulish festivities back “home” - to the Paris Catacombs for a romp among the once living. Arriving at the entrance at 1, Place Denfert-Rochereau, 14eme, however, we found the doors locked tight. A notice explained that the ossuary had been found vandalized on 20 Sept 2009; bones had been broken and strewn about every 20 meters along the 300-meter length of the tomb.

This is truly an immoral act. The Paris Catacombs are simultaneously a sacred memorial, a historical monument, and a work of public art. Their creation took place over the course of 80 years, beginning in Paris’ pre-revolutionary days (1780s) and continuing throughout the reigns of both Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III, during the 1860 rebuilding of Paris.

Going back to 1780: Crowded churchyard cemeteries throughout Paris had become so overflowing with dead that killer diseases caused by insects and animals feeding off the rotting human flesh only produced more dead. It was a vicious cycle if there ever was one!

And then there was the stench! The smells emanating from these pestilent graveyards were said to have caused milk to curdle and wine to turn to vinegar. Not good for the dairy farmers and wine makers who came to Paris to sell their wares at the nearby Forum Les Halles, Paris’ main marketplace located right around the corner from the most crowded and offensive graveyard of all: Le Cimetière des Innocents.

Even the dead of Les Innocents seemed to protest. In 1780 they turned over in their graves, breaking through an underground wall and spilling their creepy contents into the basements of neighboring houses. This unleashed a stench so toxic it suffocated the innocent occupants right in their own homes!

It was then that King Louis XVI issued a royal proclamation calling a halt to any further burials within the Paris city limits. But what to do with all those bones and rotting cadavers?

The answer was to remove them - not just from Les Innocents, but from all of Paris' 23 churchyard graves - and to transfer them to the vast network of underground Roman-era rock quarries that lay to the south of the city.

The work went on in for eight decades. Gravediggers dug by day and moved the bones by night, in black-veiled, priest-led processions. The Church declared the former quarry a scared place and gave it an official name: Les Catacombs (the Catacombs), a Roman word meaning ‘underground cemetery’.

At first the bones were just tossed in, helter-skelter in piles of femers, tibias, and craniums. It was Napoleon’s idea to tidy the place up and make it presentable for family members wishing to pay homage to their ancestors. Under his orders, the bones would be stacked and organized in designs to rival their Roman counterparts.

The Paris Catacombs first opened as a public memorial in 1810. Visitors were escorted by torchlight through the narrow tunnels beneath the streets and buildings of Paris so they wouldn’t get lost in the 290km network of underground byways.

Many of the Revolution’s vicitims also found their way to the catacombs, as did the remains of older, forgotten cemeteries dug up during the Haussmannian-building boom of the 1860s.

In all, 6 million former Parisians have been laid to rest within the Catacombs. And for 200 years visitors have marveled at the ossuary sculptures created by Napoleon’s underground workers.

But now, because of the disrespectful and reprehensible actions of idiotic crazies, the sacred historic memorial, no less important to Paris’ past than the cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre Museum, or the Eiffel Tower, is off limits to the public... indefinitely.

And, sadly, the Time Traveler Paris Tours itinerary to the Napoleonic Era, featuring the Catacombs and the Montparnasse Cemetery, may be buried before it has had a chance to take its first breath.


Time Traveler Tours projected launch date: March 2010.


Time Traveler Tours logo, copyright 2009, Time Traveler Tours, LLC.

Photo of Catacombs ossuary,

Engraving, artist unknown, of Le Cimetière des Innocents, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of a Catacombs worker by photographer Félix Nadar, 1870s.

Painting of the Catacombs by Viktor Alexandrovish Hartmann (1834-1873), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.