Sunday, March 27, 2011
Photo ops abound in Paris, Paris.
Sometimes, in the style of Martin Parr, it's more fun to photograph the photographers than their elusive subject(s).
Click, snap, whirrrr... What are these people photographing?
Lovers on the Seine?
Or might it be that extremely elusive, little-photographed marvel rising atop the Ile de la Cite'?
Here's what everyone on the bridge missed. Click to enlarge. It glided silently overheard, a magical, massive, floating advertisement! I'm not going to help the blimp people by promoting the brand or service or whatever it was emblazoned on the blimp's side. The flying machine seemed about the same size as Notre-Dame. But it really was elusive. Who says blimps are slow? I barely had time to capture it, above the rooftops, from the Rue des Deux Ponts and the Ile Saint-Louis.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Is this where it all started? The Parisian obsession with dogs? Even in the 18th century, when this sculpture was coaxed from purest white marble, the dog was the best friend of the French, men and women alike.
Indeed, an impartial observe might easily be convinced that dogs are not man's but woman's best friend -- French women, in any case.
The faithful, loyal hound has long been a symbol of domestic bliss. Can Fido keep a French couple together? That's a tall order. Certainly, the dear old dog doesn't seem to have an opinion about adultery. We've seen umpteen pooches in the company of philanderers of both sexes.
In marble, bronze and, nowadays, in a designer basket, often with a blanket, to keep toutou warm, the life of a pooch in Paris is not all that bad.
Even if you can't live the dog's life in Paris this spring, you'll always have Paris, Paris (the book features a chapter titled "Vie de chien: A Dog's Life in Paris").
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Tuesday, March 22, 2011
All photos copyright Alison Harris
At Lalbenque, 10 kilometers southeast of Le Montat in southwest France, legendary truffle-hunter Marthe Delon awaited me with her spotted pig.
“This is Kiki the 59th,” Marthe laughed. “Every year I change pigs, they grow too big, but I always name them Kiki.”
Delon, a larger-than-life character now in her eighties, was famous for her truffle omelettes when she was the cook at Lalbenque’s Lion d’Or café, a job she held for 30 years. In her kitchen, she showed me how to store eggs and truffles side by side in a sealed container. “After a day or so the truffle penetrates the eggshell, and that’s the secret of great truffle omelette. The other secret is to put in lots of truffle—a good 10 grams per omelette.”
Before widespread spore-impregnation started in the 1980s, Delon said, she rarely found brumales. Truffle growers used “natural” propagation methods: host trees grew from acorns taken from known truffle-bearing oaks and were replanted in spore-rich areas, a continual process.
For Marthe, lack of summer rainstorms is the key to falling harvests. Dogs, too, may be part of the problem. “Everyone had pigs, you ate them afterwards, like my Kikis. No need to train them, they love truffles, but only ripe truffles, so they don’t dig up immature ones the way dogs do,” she said, pawing at the air. “How are immature truffles supposed to reproduce?”
A freezing wind blew down Lalbenque’s slanting main street as sellers set out wooden benches and wicker baskets for the town’s century-old Tuesday truffle market, held from early November to mid-March. Deals were being done quietly even before the whistle blew at precisely 2:30pm, officially opening the market. Wholesale buyers, chefs and individuals inspected the truffles, which are always sold by the panier (basketful), dickering with sellers for each panier then scribbling offers on paper strips. When a seller pocketed a paper strip it signaled a sale. After a ten-minute flurry of hands, baskets and paper strips the market was over. From parked cars wholesale buyers took out old-fashioned scales, checked the weight of their purchases and paid sellers.
Scrupulously noting the day’s 92 baskets, totaling 45 kilos, veteran French government agricultural statistics recorder Odet Bazalgues tipped back his cap as he spoke to me. “Down from a year ago,” he sighed, tapping his notebook. “Again.” Tons of truffles used to be traded weekly in Lalbenque, he remarked. “It’s still among France’s main markets. Wholesale prices for the rest of the country are set here.” The day’s top-quality truffles sold for 850 euros per kilo. “Good news?” Bazalgues ironized. “Fewer brumales this season.”
Two days later, at the Thursday truffle market in nearby Limogne-en-Quercy, I witnessed similar rites and an even lower melanosporum yield, and returned to Cahors with grave concerns about the future of truffles.
Housed within Cahors’ Hôtel Terminus, Le Balandre is a handsome, century-old restaurant; both are owned and operated by chef Gilles Marre, his brother Laurent, a sommelier, and their families. Cheerful and plump, Marre is celebrated for his truffle recipes. To start, he served me exquisite Belle Epoque-style poached eggs and foie gras in puff pastry with shaved truffles, the house specialty since before World War One. Next came a heady shepherd’s pie of leeks, potatoes, bacon and truffles. As I finished my meal with an extraordinary glace aux truffes that looked and even tasted like earthy chocolate chip ice cream, I gazed at the restaurant’s stained glass and polished brass and felt I was on the deck of a truffle Titanic.
Marre agreed with others I had spoken to that the French and Italian passion for truffles showed no signs of abating. “Scarcity is the prime worry,” he said.
Scarcity is likely to increase unless truffle plantations worldwide succeed. The truffle axis, it appears, may gradually shift from Italy and France to Spain, America, China and New Zealand, and more competitive, less flavorful truffle species may well prevail. What does the future hold for the black and white truffles of France and Italy? Current trends suggest that global consumers may actually come to prefer “milder” truffles such as Chinese indicum and their relatively low prices. European truffles appear destined to become ever more a rare delicacy reserved to the lucky few.
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Saturday, March 19, 2011
I've always loved carousels -- merry-go-rounds to the unregenerate. Think of Hitchcock and "Strangers on a Train". What could be a more dramatic way to end a movie? The hero and villain battling it out on a spinning carousel... and you know how it ends.
Of course, I also like "normal" merry-go-rounds, and there are dozens of them in Paris. My favorites are in the Tuileries, Luxembourg Gardens, Jardin des Plantes, and at the base of Montmartre. See below for more.
The other day, while attending the International Cookbook Fair out at Le 104 in the 19th arrondissement, I stumbled upon what must be the world's most gloriously hideous, cheerless, and bizarre carousel, truly a not-so-merry-go-round.
Naturally the children riding its beetles and monsters, listening to the groans and burps and growls blasted by loud speakers, where howling with delight. I suppose it's the Grim Brothers' Syndrome. Kids thrive on horror.
Here's a happier scene, an old-fashioned merry-go-round in one of the great parks in Paris...
Remember, if you can't make it to Paris any time soon, you'll always have Paris, Paris the book!
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Thursday, March 17, 2011
More and more spring photos, thousands of words without the effort of reading them! Oh joy! The New Paradigm! Visual and free of cost!! Budding prospects and other grist for Proust's mill (does anyone still read Under a Budding Grove?).
Here's part two of my very small, very modest selection of daily vegetative delights, that eye-candy for bees, the honeyed vision everyone is buzzing about.
As you know from reading each and every word in my earlier posts, even if you can't join us in Paris this spring, you'll always have Paris, Paris (the book features a chapter titled "In the spring...").
You can also join the fun on our book tour in New York City, on April 28th from 5:30 to 7pm at the main Rizzoli bookstore on 5th Avenue. Or in San Francisco, Berkeley, Sonoma, Corte Madera and elsewhere in the Bay Area and Wine Country. Email me for details.
If you're looking for our Paris, Paris Tours blog and website, please click here
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
All photos copyright Alison Harris
“Even an expert has difficulty distinguishing brumale from melanosporum,” growled Pierre-Jean Pébeyre, France’s leading dealer of fresh and conserved melanosporum. I met Pébeyre on a freezing day in February in Cahors. Like many traditionalists Pébeyre expressed hostility to spore-impregnated trees, the probable source of the brumale infestation.
Pébeyre estimated that 5 percent of the black truffles he buys at premium prices turn out to be brumales. “You buy truffles when dirty, and you can’t tell. The ugly truth comes out after brushing.”
The Pébeyre truffle plant, founded in 1897 by Pierre-Jean’s great-grandfather, is based in central Cahors, capital of the Lot département. The Lot’s pre-Revolutionary name was Quercy, a deformation of the Latin quercus—oak. The scenic, oak-covered Quercy and abutting Périgord are France’s main melanosporum source. Another common name for this truffle is truffe noire du Périgord.
With a sense of humor as noir as the truffles he trades, Pébeyre, in a blue lab coat taut over his stout frame, walked me through the sorting, grading and brushing processes. He held up two black truffles that appeared identical, with rough patterned skin like a dog’s nose. “Brush a brumale and the skin detaches,” he grunted. With a pocket knife he sliced the brumale, pointed out the dark brownish exterior and flesh, and the thick, white veins within, and offered a taste. It was crisp, smelled unpleasantly of alcohol, and was flavorless.
Pébeyre then sliced a melanosporum, noting how the outside was asphalt-black, the flesh gray-brown, the pattern of veins fine. It was crunchy, smelled pleasantly of mushroom, and, I suggested, tasted something like strawberry jam and chocolate. Pébeyre fought back a frown.
“Mélanos smell and taste like mélanos,” he said, using the regional abbreviated form for melanosporum. “Why make taste or nose associations?”
The Pébeyre plant once processed tons of local melanosporum. With dwindling supplies, however, sourcing has widened to Italy and Spain. “The Italian and Spanish mélanos are just as good,” Pébeyre insisted. “The problem is brumales and others.”
Such is the demand for truffles in France that brumales and many undesirable truffle varieties are not discarded. They find their way into pâtés and truffled foods where they cannot be identified readily. France also imports around 50 tons per year of Chinese T. indicum; Pébeyre sells indicum worldwide. “Some people actually prefer it because it’s mild,” he shrugged, “and everyone likes the price.” In Europe, Chinese truffles fetch a fraction of the price of melanosporum. Boosters say Chinese indicum taste of moss and undergrowth, are not “bad” merely “different” from melanosporum.
However some unscrupulous retailers and restaurateurs fraudulently pass off lesser truffles as melanosporum. “It’s bad for business,” sighed Pébeyre, whose products are clearly labeled. “And in this business reputation is everything.”
Over lunch at Pébeyre’s comfortable house we savored delicious tastous, sandwiches of long, thin, lightly buttered country bread and shaved raw melanosporum seasoned with salt and pepper baked in a very hot oven for about two minutes. We followed with hearty truffled cervelas sausages and truffled mashed potatoes.
As with white truffles, the food melanosporum accompanies should be simple. Unlike whites, however, blacks stand up to cooking. “Cooking melanosporum transforms the flavor,” said Pébeyre, citing a handful of classic French recipes including poulet en démi-deuil (roasted chicken with sliced truffles under the skin). “Cooked truffles, whether they’re fresh or conserved, are different, more complex, less forceful than fresh, raw truffles.”
Conserved melanosporum are sterilized in 115 C boiling water for 2 1/2 hours. The juice is sold separately and is, to my palate, as flavorful as the conserved truffles themselves.
The French melanosporum harvest has at times dipped to or below a mere 10 tons in bad years. There have been many bad years in recent decades, and very few good years. Pébeyre ascribed the decline to rural abandonment, meaning demographic shifts of farming populations to cities. He also cited unsuccessful propagation efforts, and changing weather patterns. “There are fewer summer storms and to thrive all truffles need heavy rainfall in July and August,” he explained, adding, “it’s possible one day we’ll simply run out of melanosporum.”
About 10 kilometers by road due south of Cahors at the government-funded Station d’expérimentation sur la truffe, chief botanist and trufficulteur Pierre Sourzat, an excitable, sinewy man in his 50s or early 60s, showed me spore-impregnated seedlings he was growing and took me to visit two truffle plantations. An affable zealot whose mission is to unravel the mystery of mycorrhization and bring back the days of 1,000-ton melanosporum harvests in France, Sourzat radiated optimism about boosting truffle production worldwide through scientific methodology, soil preparation and fertilization, and summertime irrigation. He spoke in a rapid-fire tenor voice, pulling me along as he raced to keep up with Boubou, his trained golden retriever. Within minutes Boubou had unearthed a dozen small brumales, melanosporums and other truffles.
Peak truffle production in France coincided with the phylloxera outbreak that decimated vineyards in the late 1800s, Sourzat explained. “Desperate grapegrowers replaced vineyard tracts with truffle-oak plantations. They bore fruit for decades but after World War Two weren’t well maintained or replanted, and we’re suffering the consequences now.”
Host trees take 5 to 15 years to bear truffles, producing for 40 to 60 years thereafter. “If we hadn’t reforested with spore-impregnated trees decades ago we might have no truffles at all by now,” Sourzat insisted. “Mycorrhization does work. Look at Spain. Soon plantations in Oregon, Texas and New Zealand will be commercially viable.”
In the fourth and final segment of Truffles in Black and White I travel to the legendary truffle town of Lalbenque and meet truffle-hunter Marthe Delon and her truffle-hunting pig.
Click to read part one of this story
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Saturday, March 12, 2011
More spring photos, each sweetly singing those proverbial thousand words... Prospects are not the only things budding in Paris: there's forsythia, hyacinth, magnolias, daffodils, camellias, plum and almond trees...
Here's a small selection of daily delights, the kind of eye-candy bees fly a mile to sniff (talk about the buzz -- you can barely hear the traffic so bee-loud is the Parisian glade).
Even if you can't join us in Paris this spring, you'll always have Paris, Paris (the book features a chapter titled "In the spring...").
If you're looking for our Paris, Paris Tours blog and website, please click here
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Words don't fail me -- but they're not really needed.
It's early March, that magical time of year in Paris when winter slowly gives way to spring. Bare branches ago green, shoots shooting out of nowhere. Winter berries vie for your eye with bright blossoms.
Parisians also develop a surprising spring in their step, and have been seen to smile (rare, it's true, but not impossible). Fishermen -- not many fisher-women so far -- wet a line in the Seine. Runners race on the Seine-side roads and sidewalks, or take part in the semi-marathon.
What's missing in these pictures?
But you'll always have Paris, Paris...
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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
The scent of truffles is what draws trained dogs and pigs to them. Wild or cultivated, truffles grow at random around host trees and must be hunted out and carefully removed using a small pick or trowel.
Eigth-generation truffle hunter and dog trainer Renato Agnello, a wiry dynamo in his late 60s, teaches truffle-hunting courses at Alba’s Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufi (CNST) and leads simulated hunts. In Alba’s main square, Piazza Risorgimento, Agnello opened the back hatch of a muddy FIAT Panda and introduced me to his aging truffle hound, Diana. We drove at breakneck speed into vineyards bordering the Tanaro River south of town. The smell of Diana, dirt and truffles was dizzying.
In Italy truffle hunters must be registered, trained and licensed. Piedmont’s 10,000 are reputed to be secretive. Agnello was expansive. “I’ve been at it 61 years,” he laughed. “With people and dogs it’s genetic.”
Italian law states that truffles on public or private land belong to their finder. To keep truffle hunters out, private property must be fenced and posted “no trespassing.” Trespassing is common, however, particularly in central Italy’s commercial black truffle plantations (there are no white truffle plantations).
The white truffle hunters of Piedmont work at night to avoid being spotted by rivals and thieves, though, as I was able to confirm, their flashlights often give them away. It was dusk by the time Agnello and I began tramping through frozen woodlands on the Tanaro. He suggested that to love, as he does, unearthing truffles in tangled underbrush in the cold and dark “you must be sick.”
A further explanation is that a sizable white nugget like the one Agnello had found that morning and now pulled from his shoulder bag to show me was worth over $500. White truffles are nicknamed “white gold.”
Widespread prosperity in Italy and an economic boom in Piedmont in particular have increased demand for white truffles. At the same time the economic and societal forces driving the boom are driving down truffle supply, primarily because of environmental damage. In recent decades throughout Italy, France and Spain truffle harvests have plummeted; melanosporum and magnatum pico finds are down tenfold since the 1950s, twenty-fold compared to the early 1900s. Factors widely cited throughout Europe as contributing to the crisis include systematic over-harvesting, overpopulation of wild boars, soil compaction from tractors, acid rain, and careless truffle hunters who fail to refill the holes they dig, thereby exposing spores to lethal frost. Some problems are specific to regions, such as the industrial growth and increase in tract home building in Piedmont.
“There are more vineyards, villas and housing developments than before, fewer working farms, the woods are overgrown because no one maintains them, the willow trees have been cut because they’re no longer considered useful,” Agnello lamented. In Piedmont the basket willow may be the key to the problem.
Black truffles prefer oaks, but the white truffle’s favored host is the basket willow. For centuries, to bind their grapevines to rows of wooden stakes grape-growers used willow switches. In recent decades cement posts and plastic ties have replaced wooden stakes and willow switches. “Farmers, grape-growers and real estate developers cut down the willows and were surprised when we found fewer truffles. Now the region is replanting them and preserving woodlands,” he added.
Barking from excitement, Diana followed her nose amid oaks and willows, guided by Agnello. “This is a simulation,” he admonished. “Earlier I buried some bad black truffles here. I wouldn’t risk losing a white.”
Without difficulty Diana found each hidden truffle, circling, whining and digging until Agnello gently moved her aside. “It takes months to train a truffle dog. A good one like Diana is worth thousands of euros.”
Agnello rewarded Diana with a biscuit then refilled the holes she’d dug. “Dogs don’t naturally like truffles. Pigs do, and try to eat them, which is one reason we don’t use pigs in Piedmont any more. Pigs also grow huge, are hard to transport and restrain, so you really can’t keep them for more than a year.”
Agnello led me through an experimental black truffle plantation. “Some blacks but no whites,’ he remarked, “and the blacks often aren’t the right kind, not melanosporum, I’m not sure why.”
Dr. Paola Bonfante had a clearer idea of the challenges faced by truffle growers. A professor of mycology at the government-run Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) and Università degli Studi in Turin, she and her research assistant Claude Murat study the genetic makeup, environment and life cycles of truffles to better safeguard, propagate and precisely identify prized species. Fraud is a growing problem throughout Europe, she explained.
“So far white truffles cannot be propagated, and many challenges with melanosporum cultivation remain,” the patient, mild-mannered Bonfante told me.
Truffles are symbiotic subterranean mushrooms that develop into edible “fruiting bodies” among the roots of a host tree through a complex (and not yet fully understood) process called “mycorrhization.” The tree provides carbohydrates, amino acids and hormonal substances; the truffle reciprocates with water and mineral salts.
“Truffles require specific soil types and pHs of 6.8-8.5, specific climates, altitudes, humidity, and host trees, and they’re sensitive to prolonged frost. Essentially, after the last and coldest glaciation 10,000 years ago melanosporum and other truffles followed the northward recolonization of white oaks and other hosts in Italy, France and northern Spain, but white truffles didn’t make it across the Alps.”
As a species white truffles are less “competitive,” meaning other, hardier species take over their habitat and drive them out. Many black truffle types proliferate by artificial means on spore-impregnated roots in tree plantations in Italy, France, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Spain’s Arotz truffle plantation in the Pyrenees is the world’s largest, with over 150,000 trees. It produces several tons of black truffles a year. But, as is true of plantations everywhere, many of the truffles harvested, though black, are not melanosporum.
In recent decades inferior, morphologically similar, highly competitive truffles have infested plantations across southern Europe, raising doubts about the future of artificial mycorrhization and the aims of some truffle producers. Conspiracy theorists see a willful attempt to flood the market with easy-to-grow, bland truffles that unsophisticated consumers will eventually accept as substitutes for scarce, prized varieties that are difficult or impossible to grow. Among common, benign invader species are uncinatum (also known as “Burgundy truffle”) and aestivum (“summer truffle”), both edible. The truffle-grower’s bête noir, however, is brumale, a black winter truffle that ripens from November to early March like melanosporum, looks almost identical to it, is far less flavorful and aromatic, and up to 10,000 times more competitive and hardy.
In the third segment of Truffle in Black and White I travel to the truffle heartland of southwest France to find out more about melanosporum and brumale.
Click here to read the first segment of this story
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