Mansions in Paris ~ The Hotel de Talleyrand Friday, Jul 26 2013 

One of the most beautiful expressions of urban French architecture is the hôtel particulier, or private mansion. Many cities all over France have outstanding examples of these prestigious demeures (dwellings) from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The hôtel particulier was often freestanding – not attached to adjacent buildings – and located on its property entre cour et jardin (between the entrance court and garden behind it). It was also quite large compared to other city residences and belonged to a single (particular) owner. Before the French Revolution, it was the nobility who inherited or built these mansions. Post Ancien Régime, they belonged to wealthy members of the bourgeoisie and the clergy.

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Paris used to have 2000 private mansions. Today, only about 400 still exist. Their magnificent façades, splendid interiors and lovely gardens make them worth seeking out. Some of the most well known – and accessible to the public – are located in the Marais area of the city: the Hôtel Carnavalet and the Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau now house the Musée Carnavalet which showcases the history of Paris. Also in the Marais is the Hôtel de Donon (now the Musée Cognacq-Jay), the Hôtel Salé (the Musée Picasso), the Hôtel Lamoignon (the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris), and the breathtaking Hôtel de Soubise (now part of the Archives Nationales). Elsewhere in Paris, you have the famous Hôtel Biron (now the Rodin Museum) and the Hôtel Jacquemart-André housing the museum of the same name. Clearly, museums inhabit some of the best real estate in la capitale.

The French government owns its fair share of Paris mansions. For example, the Hôtel Matignon on the Left Bank is home to the prime minister of France. The Hôtel de Lassay houses the president of the Assemblée Nationale (part of France’s parliament). Other mansions belong to various embassies and diplomatic missions including the lovely Maison de l’Amerique Latine on the Boulevard St. Germain. And there are still some that serve as private residences, most notably the stunning Hôtel Lambert at the eastern tip of the Ile St. Louis. This last one has been the center of controversy in recent years when it was sold by the Rothschild family to a Quatari prince (for an extraordinary sum) who wanted to extensively renovate the mansion. Unfortunately, the mansion made the news again two weeks ago when a fire broke out severely damaging the historical property.

I love history and architecture so I jump at the chance to see some of these extraordinary buildings up close. The museums make it easy to do. But the government buildings and private properties are another story. One option is to schedule a visit to Paris during Les Journées du Patrimoine (French Heritage Days) in mid-September when many private monuments are open to the public – but be prepared for long waiting lines as the French adore this cultural happening! Another option is to get invited to a special event held in one of these special venues.

This summer, I attended the annual American University Clubs reception at the Hôtel de Talleyrand just off the Place de la Concorde. The AUC is a consortium of nearly 40 American university alumni groups, including my alma mater of Vanderbilt. Every year, they host their summer gathering with the U.S. ambassador at the Hôtel de Talleyrand, aka the George Marshall Center, which is one of two Paris mansions owned by the U.S. government. The other, the Hôtel de Pontalba, is home to the U.S. Ambassador to France, currently Charles Rivkin.

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The U.S. owned Hôtel de Talleyrand in the center of Paris

Following the U.S. purchase of the Hôtel de Talleyrand after WWII, the building served as the administrative headquarters of the Marshall Plan, then was used to house the U.S. consular offices in Paris until 2007. After significant restoration efforts from 2000 to 2010, the 18th century mansion is now used for special events and meetings sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Part of the building also houses an international law firm as well as the World Monuments Fund Europe.

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Portrait of George C. Marshall at the Hôtel de Talleyrand

While attending the reception was a pleasure – it was great to see friends and colleagues and also to hear remarks by the ambassador – the real star of the evening was the venue itself. Over 150 French artisans participated in the mansion’s restoration and their expertise was on display everywhere.

The Grand Escalier (Great Staircase) is a work of art with its original 18th century iron railing. The monumental proportions make for an impressive entry to the reception rooms above.

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The AUC event guests were free to mingle in the numerous salles (rooms). The gilded molding, sparkling chandeliers, painted woodwork, and flowing draperies, all in sterling condition, were breathtaking.

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My particular favorite was the painted woodwork. I was curious about how many hours the artisans spent restoring this aspect of the mansion.

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This photo shows the painted woodwork of the Boudoir Rothschild room & its original parquet floor

The detail of the painted design is incredible…

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As was the view from the Hôtel de Talleyrand’s windows. The Place de la Concorde and the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries gardens were just outside…

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All in all, it was a fabulous evening and a fabulous venue. If, like me, you like French architecture and the French decorative arts, you’ll want to seek out some of these private Paris mansions for a closer viewing. Try the museum route or the French Heritage Days – they are great ways to see some of the historical glories of France.

French Flavor of the Month: Everything Tastes Better with Maille Saturday, Jul 20 2013 

One of my favorite travel destinations is grocery stores. That’s right, local grocery stores and supermarkets – outdoor markets are a whole other category. I love to wander the aisles not necessarily to shop but to see what’s central to eating life in other parts of the world. It’s fascinating to note which sections are super large, i.e. more important to the local cuisine, and vice versa.

In French supermarkets, you’ll see that a huge food category of course is cheese. There are over 300 hundred types of fromage produced in the country so accordingly grocery shoppers have a large selection from which to choose. In the same vein, the French consume lots of yogurt and other dairy products such as fromage blanc and crème fraîche so those rayons (departments) are énormes.

Another large section in French supermarchés is Dijon mustard, or la moutarde de Dijon (Dijon refers both to the place in Burgundy as well as the method of making mustard). Since the French eat lots of salad and since the primary salad dressing in France is la vinaigrette made with mustard, it follows that shoppers would need a lot of it. There’s regular Dijon, mild Dijon, extra strong Dijon, plus the delicious moutarde à l’ancienne with its whole grain seeds. Bien sûr, the French know it’s not just a salad thing; many other French dishes use Dijon mustard in them.

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The French know too that not all Dijon mustards are alike. One might be tempted to think that if you’ve tried one brand, you’ve tried them all. With the French brand Maille (pronounced like the English word ‘my’ plus a little ‘yuh’ sound on the end), there is a lot of history and also a fresh new world of mustard out there. 

First, the history. Many are not aware of Maille’s distinguished pedigree. Antoine-Claude Maille, a vinegar merchant, gained renown in 1720 when la peste (the plague) ravaged Marseille. His invention of the "Vinaigre aux Quatre Voleurs" (Four Thieves Vinegar) and its antiseptic qualities ended up saving the lives of many Marseillais from the contagion. His son, also named Antoine-Claude Maille, opened a shop in 1747 on the rue Saint-André-des-Arts in Paris (in today’s 6th arrondissement). The quality of his wares – vinegars, mustards and condiments – attracted the highest attention and he soon became the official supplier of vinegars and mustards to European kings and queens,  including Louis XV of France.

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Robert Maille holding mustard flowers in his hand

His son, Robert Maille continued the family business, and it remained in the family until the 20th century. Today, Maille’s culinary specialists take inspiration for their new products from père Antoine’s notebooks – what an interesting job. The company also continues to use the finest ingredients and artisan methods to produce their offerings. As far as buying from Maille directly, clients have been frequenting the Dijon store since it opened in 1845 and the Paris boutique at La Madeleine in 1996, after it moved from its original location where it had been welcoming customers for nearly 250 years.

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I recently spent a whole morning at the Maille boutique in Paris and had the privilege of meeting Frenchman Antoine Budan who currently directs the Maille brand in Paris. We talked about the fact that Maille is one of the best known brands of mustard in France and possibly the world. And while it continues to make award-winning ‘regular’ Dijon mustard, the company has also gone into very creative territory and now showcases inventive flavors and uses for this French staple.

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The beautifully appointed shop features dozens of specialty mustards, many not as yet available in supermarkets. (You have to go directly to the source!) Some of the amazing flavors include fines herbes, chablis et girolles (white wine and girolles mushrooms), noix (walnut), tomates séchées et piment d’espelette (sun-dried tomato and spicy Basque pepper), parmesan et basilic (parmesan and basil), cognac, abricot sec et curry (dried apricot and curry), figue et coriandre (fig and cilantro), ail et citron (garlic and lemon). The list goes on and on. In keeping with the French gourmet habit of offering a ’special collection’ each season, Maille put together the Spring / Summer Collection 2013 which includes three unique mustard flavors: Spicy Basque pepper, Raspberry liqueur and St. Maure cheese. But their most popular flavor hands down continues to be the Honey Mustard with Balsamic Vinegar!

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Maille’s Honey Mustard with Balsamic Vinegar – so good you can (almost) eat it with a spoon!

While I was having fun browsing all the mustards – and also the selection of vinegars, oils, vinaigrettes, cornichons, and home accessories – a steady stream of customers flowed into the shop. The French clients seemed to have their shopping list in hand, which often included a purchase from the fresh mustards on tap. This alone is worth a visit to the Maille boutique. On the day that I was there, the moutardes ‘fraîchement’ servies à la pompe included chablis and black truffle mustard, white wine mustard that was hot and spicy, chablis mustard that was hot and fruity, and chardonnay old style mustard. The staff pumps the mustard into small clay pots and then seals them with a cork lid. Once you buy the pot, you can bring it back to be refilled over and over. You can see the process below – and the wonderful staff restocking all those cork lids. I even got to try my hand at working the pump!

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Also not to be missed in the boutique are the lovely gift boxes, or coffrets in French, with various selections of products. The kitchen accessories with hand towels, oven mitts and traditional ceramic mustard jars make great gifts as well.

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If you’re interested in perusing the inventive Maille mustard flavors, you’ll definitely want to swing by the Paris or Dijon boutiques. It’s a fascinating fresh approach to an old classic. I picked up several of the new flavor mustards on my visit and have found them all to be absolument délicieux.

As I wrapped up my gourmet – and cultural – morning at Maille, I watched baskets of mustard jars being brought up from the cellar. The staff was restocking the boutique after a busy weekend. So many Maille fans had been to the shop that the French mustard had been flying off the shelves!

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Below are the addresses for the Dijon and Paris Maille boutiques. They are open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 7pm.

La Boutique Maille à Paris
6, place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris
 
La Boutique Maille à Dijon
32, rue de la Liberté, 21000 Dijon
 

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

One of the Maille slogans in recent years has been the French play on words "Il n’y a Maille qui m’aille." Roughly translated, it means "Only Maille works for me!"  

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You can see many of Maille’s new and classic offerings described on the company’s French website – in French, of course. The U.S. website tells the story of Maille and where to purchase its products stateside. For a real hands-on mustard experience, it also features dozens of recipes using Maille mustards including desserts!

Paris Fetes the Little Black Dress Thursday, Jul 11 2013 

Perhaps the most famous of all little black dresses was the one worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Created by French couture designer (and good friend of Hepburn’s) Hubert de Givenchy, the petite robe noire (little black dress, or LBD) attained such iconic status from the film that today it’s almost its own fashion category. Of course, Coco Chanel also deserves credit for the timeless and classy look when she brought forth LBDs in the 1920’s.

A propos, a new fashion exhibition just opened in Paris last week at the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture celebrating this special piece of female attire. Entitled “Little Black Dress,” the show traces the historical and current significance of the ‘singular sartorial phenomenon.’  Approximately 50 black dresses from designer collections and closets of best dressed awardees are showcased until September 22, 2014. Interestingly, the exhibition was organized by the Savannah College of Art & Design and Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley and was first shown in Savannah last fall.

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Exhibition poster courtesy of the Mona Bismarck Center/SCAD

Evidemment (clearly), the little black dress is not new news to luxury vintage specialist Didier Ludot who first opened his landmark boutique in Paris in 1975. Located in the elegant Palais Royal on the Right Bank, Ludot’s ‘fashion gallery’ features vintage couture clothing and accessories of stunning quality and condition. And long ago, he realized the fashion potential of the LBD, selling vintage versions to fashionistas wanting that inimitable Holly Golightly look.

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When the classic LBD went mainstream and demand for the dresses increased, Ludot began creating new versions of the LBD based on vintage designs. Today, he has two boutiques in Paris – the vintage couture shop as well as his “La Petite Robe Noire” which sells the new black dresses. I treated myself to one of these new petites robes noires a few years ago and it remains one of my favorite clothing items of all time.

Never one to be left out of the current fashion conversation, Ludot has put on a temporary fashion exhibition this month to coincide with Paris fashion week. In his Palais Royal space, he pays tribute to French couture designer Anne-Valérie Hash with “Envers Endroit,” or “Inside Out Right Side Out.” On view until July 20, the exhibition highlights the cut, color and design of Anne-Valérie Hash’s fashion pieces as well as the couture techniques used to produce them. As a complement to the exhibition, Ludot has opened an Anne-Valérie Hash pop-up boutique (en français, ‘une boutique éphémère’) at La Petite Robe Noire for the duration of the show.

All that to say, if you are a fan of great French couture, you’ll want to make a beeline for Paris between now and September to see “Little Black Dress.” And I would also recommend stopping by Ludot’s “La Petite Robe Noire” shop in the Palais Royal. These days, it would be hard to find a fashionable Parisienne who didn’t mention ‘black dress’ and ‘Ludot’ in the same breath!

Exposition “Little Black Dress”
Mona Bismarck American Center for Arts and Culture
34 Avenue de New York, 75116 Paris

Didier Ludot
24 Galerie Montpensier
Jardin du Palais Royal, 75001 Paris

Didier Ludot’s “La Petite Robe Noire”
125 Galerie Valois
Jardin du Palais Royal, 75001 Paris

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For a taste of little black dresses without going to Paris, you might want to check out the book The Little Black Dress: Vintage Treasure published by Assouline in 2001. In it, Didier Ludot chronicles in words and photos the remarkable fashion journey of the LBD. Stateside, the book is available at Assouline boutiques in New York and California as well as online.

There is also a catalogue for the current "Little Black Dress" exhibition. It is available online at amazon.com.

And in 2009, French perfume maker Guerlain created a fragrance called – you guessed it – "La Petite Robe Noire," “The Little Black Dress.” In the U.S., it is available online at Sephora and occasionally at some department stores.

Currently in Paris Thursday, Jul 4 2013 

This past week in Paris was cool weather-wise – I wore a sweater and jacket every day – but it was sizzling as usual in the culture department. No matter what time of year, there is always something interesting going on in Paris. So if you are planning to be there in the next few days, weeks or months, you might want to check out a few of these art exhibitions, cultural happenings and even special foodie events. (Some of the offerings are completely fun and unexpected – very French! – so be sure and scroll down to see them all. Links are provided for more info.)

Art Exhibitions

Musée d’Orsay“Une Passion française – La Collection Spencer et Marlene Hays” (The Collection of Marlene and Spencer Hays – A French Passion). 5, Quai Anatole France, 75007 Paris. These American art collectors from Nashville share their magnificent trove of French Impressionist and early modern art works, many of which are returning to France for the first time since their creation. Until August 18.

Decorative Arts Museum“La mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette” (Behind the Seams. An indiscreet look at the mechanics of Fashion). 107, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris. This intriguing exhibition explores the variety of undergarments that have molded the body from the 14th century to the present. A ground-breaking show with never before exhibited pieces from the museum’s fashion collection. Opens this week, until November 24.

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Poster courtesy of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Musée Maillol“Fragile – Murano: Chefs-d’oeuvre de Verre de la Renaissance au XXIe siècle” (Fragile – Murano: Masterpieces in Glass from the Renaissance to the 21st Century). 59-61 Rue de Grenelle 75007 Paris. Move over Chihuly. This incredible exhibition features more than 200 fine works in glass from the workshops of Murano, Italy. From exquisite pieces made for 15th century Europe’s greatest families to flamboyant Baroque creations to Art Deco and modern works, this special exhibition is not to be missed. Until July 28.

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Musée Rodin“Rodin, La Chair, Le Marbre” (Rodin, Flesh and Marble). 79, rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. This exceptional show takes a close look at marble in the hands of the expert sculptor Rodin and how this material comes closest to simulating human flesh in sculpture. An amazing art exhibition in three dimensions.  Until September 1.

Musée du Luxembourg“Chagall, Entre Guerre et Paix” (Chagall, Between War and Peace). 19, rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris. This special exhibition features more than 100 works of Chagall focusing on the imagery of war and peace in his unique allegorical style. Until July 21.

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Centre Pompidou“Roy Lichtenstein”. 19, rue Beaubourg, 75004 Paris. Lovers of pop art will enjoy this retrospective devoted to Roy Lichtenstein and his art based on cartoon images and advertising. In partnership with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Modern in London. Opens this week, until November 4. 

Cultural Happenings

Luxembourg Gardens“Le Tour de France”. Rue de Medicis, 75006 Paris. To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the legendary Tour de France bike race this year, the French Senate has sponsored this special photo exhibition on the iron gates of the Luxembourg Gardens. Fabulous photos in a fantastic location in Paris. Until July 27.

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Tuileries Gardens“Sur les pas d’André Le Nôtre aux Tuileries” (André Le Nôtre Walk in the Tuileries Gardens). This garden walk in the Tuileries next to the Louvre commemorates the 400th anniversary of the birth of French garden designer, André le Nôtre. Special signs indicate the garden elements Le Nôtre brought to life in the Tuileries, a place particularly special to the designer as he was born, lived and died on the grounds of this former royal complex. Until September 30.

All Over Paris – Play Me, I’m Yours – Paris 2013 is about to wind up its second tour in the French capital. British artist Luke Jerram has come back to Paris to place 48 pianos all over the city and invite the public to play anything at any moment. I passed by this piano in the 6th arrondissement a few days ago – a couple of young French girls were having a ball playing the instrument for everyone passing by. Until July 9.

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Sainte Chapelle – Classical music concerts take place in this spectacular venue nearly every day from late spring until early fall each year (with a break in August for vacation). If you’ve never treated yourself to choral or chamber music in this space, be sure and reserve time on your Paris calendar for this next time you are there. Click here for the current schedule. 

Foodie Events

Gourmet purveyors Fauchon and Dalloyau have put out their ‘summer collection’ of goodies. Be sure to stop by one of their shops to try an array of creative sweet treats. 

Berthillon – This famous ice cream shop on the Ile St. Louis was doing a booming business this past Sunday. The line outside was a testament to the popularity of its incredible ice cream offerings and the finally warm temperatures outside. Crazy too were the long lines at other shops on the Ile St. Louis that carry Berthillon – I still make a point to go to the mother ship at 31, rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile, 75004  Paris. Note that while Berthillon will be closed from July 22 to September 3 for vacation and renovations, they will still be supplying ice cream to their ‘resellers’!

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Bon été! ~ Happy Summer!