The French Pumpkin Patch Saturday, Oct 27 2012 

The French love squash, both in the garden and on the table. And fall is the season when all sorts of colorful winter courges start to appear. This month, our French Affaires’ fall trip-goers were treated to a cornucopia of beautiful squash in ‘pumpkin patches’ around the Loire Valley.

At the Château de Villandry, the squash decor was a real head-turner. For those who are not familiar with this Loire Valley jewel, Villandry could arguably possess the prettiest gardens in all of France. The Renaissance château is surrounded by a stunning tapestry of ornamental and vegetable gardens and draws thousands of visitors and gardeners each year. (More on this and other Loire gardens in future posts!)

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Villandry’s potagers (kitchen gardens) included bright orange citrouilles (pumpkins) scattered in beds outlined by tailored boxwoods. In the château’s courtyard, winter squash of every variety topped this sculpted stone urn. Ripe grapes from local vineyards and other vegetables completed the photogenic view of fall’s garden bounty.

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Another stop for our camera-clicking group was the storybook medieval castle and gardens of Château du Rivau. French owner Patricia Laigneau gave us a personal tour of her family’s home and grounds. The château’s large kitchen garden featured winter squash and pumpkins in expected – and unexpected – places.

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Patricia also had her squashes lined up with labels identifying the specific type of courge d’hiver. It was a nice touch for the gardeners among us with visions of growing squash in home gardens. The simple display took on a decorative touch of its own.

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Finally, at the Château de Valmer, owner Countess Alix de St. Venant showed us around her two-and-a-half acre potager and terraced gardens dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Her passion for kitchen gardens is contagious, and she is well known in French gardening circles and beyond for her expertise in heirloom vegetables.

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At the time of our visit, Madame de St. Venant’s winter squash had been harvested and was awaiting decorative placement for the upcoming weekend’s garden festival.

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I came away from our fall garden tours inspired by so many things but particularly by the colors and shapes of the winter squash. Halloween aside, it is safe to say that the French have perfected the decorative touch with their autumn harvests – even though it probably helps to have a 15th century wall or moat handy for effect! This fall and Thanksgiving, I’m going to pay homage to the French talent and put together some French-styled squash creations of my own.

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A mini-citrouille on the moat wall at Rivau

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

A short primer on pumpkins in France:

Citrouille – This type of pumpkin is round and orange…the pumpkin of Cinderella, or Cendrillon in French, fame. Typically not used in cooking as it lacks flavor and is stringy.

Potiron – This pumpkin is more flat than the round citrouille and is ridged around the sides. The potiron comes in a range of colors from orange to green. The flesh is sweet and silky making it perfect for making soups, tarts and other dishes.

Potimarron – This small pumpkin looks like an oversized orange fig or pear. It too can be used in various sweet and savory recipes.

To grow your own pumpkins, Botanical Interests in the U.S. offers a wonderful variety of heirloom and organic seeds. Click here for the list on their mail order website.

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 The Pumpkin variety Musquée de Provence

Paris’s Palace of Teas Friday, Oct 19 2012 

Tea is chic as ever in Paris, and what better time of year to enjoy it than when fall and winter roll around? To duck into a warm, cozy Parisian tea salon on a chilly afternoon anywhere in la Capitale is a treat. But to sit by the fire in one’s own salon and enjoy one’s own personally chosen teas might be even a notch better.

There are a variety of tea purveyors in Paris where great teas can be purchased for home enjoyment – my current favorite is Le Palais des Thés (The Palace of Teas) which has five boutiques in Paris. Fresh and personal are the buzzwords at Le Palais des Thés and after a few minutes of smelling, tasting and trying, it’s not hard to see why.

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Le Palais des Thés at 61, rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondissement

In 1987, Frenchman and tea connoisseur François-Xavier Delmas founded the company with the idea of sourcing the freshest and most exceptional teas from around the world. For the past 25 years, he and his team of tea experts have developed relationships with the best tea growers anywhere. Today, they bring the fragrant and delicious results to their nearly 30 boutiques worldwide.

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Founder Francois-Xavier Delmas & Aurélie Bessière selecting a new green tea in China this year

Delmas’ niece, Aurélie Bessière, is President of Le Palais des Thés USA, and for nearly two years, she has devoted herself to sharing her uncle’s passion for tea with the American market. She spoke with me recently about Le Palais des Thés’ special approach to the tea business:

Q: What makes Le Palais des thés unique in the world of teas?

A: Our success comes from direct, personal relationships with all our tea producers. It is a typical practice for tea purveyors go through big marketplaces and intermediaries in Germany and India. However, the team at Le Palais des Thés handles everything directly. We know our growers and producers and visit their tea plantations regularly. We keep a close eye on tea-producing techniques, product quality and working conditions. What comes out of these personal efforts is mutual trust, friendship and access to the world’s best and freshest teas.

Q: Where do you get your teas?

A: We source primarily from China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. For a visual feel of what some of these places look like, my uncle has a great blog called “Discovering Tea” (in French, it’s "Chercheur de the") where he posts gorgeous photos of tea estates in remote places.

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Q: What is your earliest tea memory?

A: I was 10 years old on vacation in France and tasted my uncle’s ‘Thé des Moines’ (Tea of the Monks) for the first time. It is a perfumed green and black tea, and I fell in love with the taste and fragrance. Now, whenever I have it, it makes me nostalgic for that childhood moment.

Q: What is the biggest barrier to people seeking out tea?

A: What we find is that some people don’t know how to make it – or think they don’t. So we try to provide easy-to-follow tips on how to prepare various teas. This has implications for how people enjoy tea. For example, some people think that green tea is bitter and that they don’t like it. We help them see that if green tea is made well, it is wonderful, and they often become a total fan of it. Too, all these exotic and nuanced teas are still quite new to most people so we consider it our mission to educate and help people discover the stunning world of tea.

Q: Where did the name ‘Le Palais des Thés’ come from?

A: Of course, it literally means The Palace of Teas which is a great name for the ‘royal treatment’ we give our teas and our customers! But it is also a play on words in French – ‘le palais’ also means ‘the palate.’ In addition, Le Palais des Thés also sounds like ‘le palais d’été’ which translates as ‘the summer palace’ and is a tribute to the summer palace in Beijing, China.

Q: What are your most popular teas?

A: The top three teas that sell very well are ‘Thé du Hammam,’ a green tea with berries that is wonderful hot or iced; the ‘Thé des Moines,’ a secret green and black tea recipe from Tibet; and the ‘Grand Yunan Impérial’ which is a lovely black tea from China, round and smooth in the mouth and very easy to drink. Coffee lovers like this last tea especially.

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After our conversation and my recent visit to the Palais des Thés boutique on the Left Bank in Paris, I found it easy to see why tea is so popular in France. When you have a culture that is used to appreciating the nuances and characteristics of wines, then the leap to flavorful teas is natural. Le Palais des Thés even has a special line of seasonal teas made in small batches called ‘Grands crus,’ just like wine.

Choosing teas to buy is a pleasure at Le Palais des Thés stores due to the knowledgeable staff and also the chance to taste and smell the various teas. Although there is no place to sit down for a tea-and-pastry moment (several Paris restaurants and tea salons do serve the Palace of Teas’ offerings including Hermès on the Left Bank), the bright and airy boutiques making slow browsing and learning a must. And it’s hard to resist the wonderful teapots and other accessories, many of which are made especially for Le Palais des Thés.

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Teas can be purchased loose or in muslin tea bags. The tea bag labels include helpful hints such as what time of day the tea can be best enjoyed as well as water temperature and steeping instructions. I am always tempted by the boxed tea selections which come with nine varieties of teas, each with six muslin teabags that are individually wrapped.

Entering a Palais des Thés boutique is a fascinating glimpse into the world of tea. In addition to the Paris shops, Le Palais des Thés has stores in major cities all over France. And two new boutiques are slated to open in New York later this year. If you haven’t tried this French company’s approach to tea, think about sampling some in your salon this winter season.

NB: If you are in Paris this winter, don’t miss the first ever museum exhibition devoted to tea at the Musée Guimet. Entitled “Le thé à Guimet – Histoire d’une boisson millénaire,” the show traces the history of tea over millennia. As part of the exhibition, visitors can taste the commemorative tea developed by Le Palais des Thés for the Guimet. The Guimet Museum is located at 6, place d’Iéna in the 16th arrondissement. The exhibition is on view through through January 7, 2013.

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French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Tea lovers in the U.S. can also buy Le Palais des Thés’ teas on their U.S. website. The teabags and loose teas are well displayed and described. And the boxed tea samplers make great gifts for oneself or others who love tea.

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And at ‘The Art of French Cooking with Susan Loomis’ event in Dallas this November, we’ll get to taste an assortment of teas from Le Palais des Thés…it’s just one of the many special tastings and activities at this exceptional culinary experience of France in the U.S.!

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Art Meets Style at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay Friday, Oct 12 2012 

Swish new art exhibition featuring the Impressionists and the fashions of the times

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You can almost hear the swish of women’s dresses in the new exhibition “L’Impressionisme et la mode” (Impressionism and Fashion) at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This groundbreaking show highlights the portrayal of clothing and accessories in the works of late nineteenth century Impressionist painters. It also marks the first time that the Musée d’Orsay has brought fashion and art together, joining the trend at other major museums around the world.

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© RMN (Musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

“L’Impressionisme et la mode” reveals how the Impressionists sought to capture emotion of contemporary life in its most daily, simple and fleeting aspects. Both natural and urban settings provided rich sources of inspiration for the modernity of the time. And fashion, as is seen in this exhibition, was an almost inexhaustible Impressionist theme from 1860 to the 1880’s. It was no coincidence that this artistic focus corresponded with the emergence of fashion as a leisure pursuit and the birth of the era’s grands magasins (big department stores).

The exhibition’s first room includes an eye-catching array of dresses and outfits from the fashion collections of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la mode de la ville de Paris and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Also on display are vintage documents, fashion plates, engravings, catalogues, magazine pages, and photos all chronicling the gaiety of clothing styles during la belle époque. Particularly interesting were two paintings by Paul Cézanne juxtaposed with two pages from the illustrated fashion magazine La Mode illustrée of 1870 to 1871. It turns out that Cézanne copied the two pages almost verbatim, turning them into the painted works Les Deux Soeurs (The Two Sisters) and La Promenade (The Stroll). A great example of art imitating art.

Also visually arresting was the immense portrait by Albert Bartholomé of his wife entitled Dans la serre or Madame Bartholomé (1881). Wearing an elegant day dress of purple and white polka dots and stripes with a pleated skirt, she stands in the doorway of the greenhouse surrounded by plants and flowers. The actual dress worn by Madame Bartholomé in nearly mint condition appears next to the painting itself. It is the only original piece of clothing captured in the art that is still in existence.

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© Musée d‘Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

Worth admission to the entire exhibition are the two rooms set up as runway fashion shows. World-renowned stage and artistic director Robert Carsen was tapped to create the theatrical ambiance of “Impressionism and Fashion,” and the result is spectacular.* Larger than life portraits of women by Edouard Manet and Claude Monet among others are hung in a row facing wall-sized mirrors. The effect is a series of models ‘moving’ through the red-walled rooms and displaying their finery. To create an ‘audience,’ Carsen includes gilded chairs lining both sides of each salle (room). Small ribbons tie elegant place cards to each seat and include the names of late nineteenth century notables, authors, artists, and social luminaries such as Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Princesse de Wagram, Robert de Moustesquiou, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Charles Frederick Worth, Mademoiselle Marie Duplessis, Charles Baudelaire, and the Comtesse Clotilde Bonaparte. Viewers can participate in the performance art by taking a front-row seat and watching the painters’ fashion parade go by. 

“Impressionism and Fashion” also displays paintings of women at home, of women out and about at balls and plays, of women in lighter underthings, of men in their more somber attire as foils for shimmering ladies’ apparel, and also of exquisite accessories such as hats, shoes and fans. More than 90 works by Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Georges Seurat in addition to fashion portraitists Alfred Stevens and James Tissot showcase the fashion confections from the period. Every work merits a close look at the play of light and shadow and color on flesh and fabrics.

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© RMN (Musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

“Plaisirs du plein air,” at the end of the exhibition, opens into the Orsay’s spacious belle époque ballroom. It has been turned into an outdoor setting with sky blue walls, faux green grass carpeting, park benches, and lighthearted birdsong on soundtrack. Huge canvases such as Monet’s Femmes au jardin (Women in the Garden) and Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Bazille’s Réunion de famille invite the viewer into picture frames of sunny country scenes layered with fluffy skirts and flowing dresses. What could so easily have been a corny setting turns out to be wonderfully compelling and a perfect ending to the show.

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© RMN (Musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

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© Musée d‘Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

When I saw the exhibition last week, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about yet another museum effort devoted to Impressionism. But I walked out thinking how gorgeous and light and fresh the art was. And putting the paintings and fashion together made the artists’ visions much more three dimensional and consequently more real.

“L’Impressionisme et la mode” (curated by Gloria Groom of The Art Institute in Chicago, Guy Cogeval of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Philippe Thiébaut of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and Susan Stein of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) is on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through January 20, 2013. The museum is open daily except Mondays from 9.30am to 6pm and Thursdays until 9.45pm. Admission is €12. The main entrance is located at 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. www.musee-orsay.fr. No photography is allowed in the exhibition.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

If you aren’t able to catch this exhibition in Paris, then try to see it when it come to the U.S. next year. While the fashions will be different – the Paris pieces are too fragile to travel – the interplay between painting and style will be just as insightful and inspiring. The show will be presented as “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 26 to May 27, 2013, and at The Art Institute of Chicago from June 25 to September 22, 2013. 

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In the interim, you can dive into the sumptuous exhibition catalogue. The English version will be published later this year. Pre-ordering is available through amazon.com (click here for the link) or you can check the backorder status with The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

* Robert Carsen’s commentary on how he goes about creating the set for a museum exhibition (quoted from the exhibition catalogue):

“Quand on me confie une exposition, j‘essaie de créer un parcours qui aura un contenu intellectuel et un contenu émotionnel pour que la visite soit une expérience, comme une pièce de théâtre, avec un prologue, premier acte, deuxième acte, troisième acte. Il ne manque que les applaudissements ! Et c‘est aussi important que le public fasse partie de l‘expérience. Les musées, comme les théâtres, restent des lieux – dans notre monde où l‘on fait les choses de plus en plus individuellement, avec nos petits ordinateurs, téléphones et autres –, où on se retrouve pour partager une expérience ensemble.”

“When I have been tasked with an exhibition, I try to create a path which appeals to both the intellect and the emotions so that the viewing is an experience, like a play in a theatre, with a prologue, a first act, a second act, a third act. The only thing missing is the applause of the audience! And it’s also important that the public be part of the experience. Museums, like theatres, remain the only places – in our world where everyone does things more and more alone with our little computer, telephones and other devices – where we meet others to share an experience together.”

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