Friday, 9 August 2013

French Wine, Men and Monet

One July evening a few years ago my lover and I were sitting on the terrace of our hotel restaurant admiring a view, far below, of the Seine valley and the Western edges of the Vexin, the rich agricultural region so much fought over in the Middle Ages. We were in Monet country and Monet’s famous house at Giverny with the bridge over the water lily pool, was just up the road. My lover had chosen the red wine from Chateau Olivier in the Graves region, with care, some extravagance and to suit his own elegant preference, but mine too. I raised a glass to my lips and sipped. “French wine “ I said, “ is too....” and I watched his eyes as he waited for me to make a criticism...”delicious,” I said smiling naughtily. “One cannot get enough of it.” He relaxed visibly.  French people, among the most critical in the world, cannot take criticism.
In this case it was not an issue. Is French wine the best in the world?  I think so. I once told my lover that the French have everything—the climate, soil and geographical location to make their wines the very best, and to give them everything anyone could want in life. It is true about the wines. Lately, the weather has not favoured this wonderful wine making region of the world. Chilly summers have left the grapes of the famous production regions (especially Burgundy, and Bordeaux) low in sugar and tannins. For this reason I have bought young wines from the warmer South West as opposed to those from terroirs further north more noted for the excellence of their production. But, regardless of the weather, the French wine makers do have the expertise of blending their grape varieties into interesting ‘assemblage”. I hate it when the wine producers in France or elsewhere bottle wines of only one cepage (grape). The great skill of French wine making lies in the technique where the juices of several different grapes are combined to make the base of a wine such as a fine Bordeaux from, say, St Emilion. Many Bordeaux wines are based on a fermentation of the juices of three different grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It is the proportions of these different grape juices that gives the characteristic touch to the wines of the many privileged chateaux of Bordeaux, positioned as they are on different sides of hills whose soil drainage, soil quality and exposure to sunlight determines the quality and market value of their vintage. Given the skills of ‘assemblage’ in the different wine making regions, one can really only disdain wines based on a single grape. But the habit, coming from the producers of New World wines has been catching on in France, where otherwise the techniques of blending the juices of different grape varieties give the vintage of a producer Chateau its characteristic ‘gout’.
When choosing a wine I usually want to find out the ‘cepage’ by reading the label at the back of the bottle. If I cannot find out the grapes that have gone into the wine I very often will not buy the wine unless I already know it. One of the decisive factors for me of a champagne, for instance, is the proportion of Pinot Noir over Chardonnay. The latter gives the crispy dry quality much admired in white Burgundies and champagnes, but for my taste this dryness also extends to its effect on my skin, which is also so much drier after drinking any chardonnay based wine. But I prefer the Pinot Noir, also in the red wines of Burgundy where it gives the characteristic richness and base notes to the great reds. Otherwise, my love of the Loire valley wines and champagnes is related to my preference for the other pinot grape varieties, in this case pinot gris or blanc.
We can’t have everything and sometimes we can’t have anything. Once in a rather crazy filmed interview in what was still then a Rhodesia under sanctions, with Sir Roy Welensky, the former Prime Minister of the defunct Federation of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland, Sir Roy, the cameraman and I agreed (as we sipped Rhodesian champagne to much hilarity) that in Purgatory one would surely drink Rhodesian wine and eat American cheese with English bread.
No such problem in France where bread, wine and cheese are of such excellence.
Would the general mass of French people were equal in appreciation of their heritage.
I lift my glass to Chateau Olivier, to the glorious reflections of the Monet country and to my lover then and now.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Great Paris Knicker Crisis

Recently, I went in search of a supply of lace knickers to take with me to London and was shocked at what I found: a terrible dearth of the right sort of knickers is plaguing the underwear sections of department stores. For some time I have left the selection of my underwear to my lover: he knows what he likes and I like to wear it. But now, the only available underwear turns out to be of a chastity belt type more like a girdle than a saucy pantie. Thanks to most women wearing their leggings daily, knickers are now designed to rise to the waist so as not to leave a wrinkle or a line in the smooth cut of skin tight black lycra or denim. Not only do knickers look like corsets but apparently they are intended to act as corsets, with tough elastic panels over belly and butt. Leggings and tight jeans are a demanding fashion that does not go with fast food habits--also increasing. Bulges abound and the rear view of many a legging wearer on the street is far from titillating. Thus, the underwear racks have been invaded by something that had its genesis in the pantie girdle of the 1950’s.
This has now turned into a big crisis for anyone wanting to cheer up her fella by showing a cute culotte under her skirt. (Culotte is the French word for knickers and really it means something that covers the ass or “cul”. Some of the early revolutionaries were “sans culottes”. Heaven knows what they actually wore to cover their credentials!).
Once upon a time there were “French Knickers” made of silk and lace. More like a dainty pair of shorts they were called ‘French’ because they allowed a naughty hand to slide easily into them. Lycra and the jeans habit put paid to those.
The ass coverings of present day Parisian females being the aforesaid black lycra leggings or sometimes skin tight jeans or jeggins, any kind of naughty knickers seem to have had their day. Even the new long line skirts, also clinging to buttock and thigh must pose a threat to the lace bikini briefs that please our men folk. One solution may be to wear no knickers at all. But men seem to enjoy ripping off their dates’ panties. In fact its almost a ritual with my lover that when we are walking home after dinner he makes sure he pushes me into a doorway and relieves me of my knickers. If one is wearing leggings or tight jeans, this very notion becomes a contortion. But then that may be one of the perverse reasons for the popularity among women for leggings over skirt. The more dangerous suburbs are replete with “types” of the more menacing kind and rape on the way home from a late evening in the city centre is a hazard that leggings and jeans help to prevent.
Parisian business women prefer to wear trouser suits for the same reason: avoidance of desktop seduction. That apart, many French women make a set at their boss in order to keep their job and earn a promotion or turn else him into a husband. The trousers are for keeping the other guys away.
I’m not sure how men are coping. Some bright young feminist should enroll for a PhD on the subject. The French government‘s Minister for female matters would possibly like to get involved. Grants could be offered. The matter requires serious study.
As for the bedroom? The upmarket lingerie specialist Chantal Thomas is still showing seductive lace underwear in her Rue St Honoré boutique. Bras, brief panties and real corsets, boned and provocatively trimmed with swansdown adorn her windows. Even there the panties show a tendency to the more robust designs of the day but they come nowhere near the waist high horrors of those in the budget stores patronized by legging wearing office workers. But, Chantal’s offerings don’t have to be worn under any clothing at all. You just stalk around in them chez toi in five inch heels and lace topped stockings held up by suspenders.
Your lover brings the obligatory bottle of champagne and a gourmet picnic, and for the moment at least you can forget leggings or jeans and the wrong kind of male attention at work. The real Paris knickers have just gone underground until fashions change again: I hope.
Meanwhile I’ve put my lover onto the job of tracking down something worth taking off of an evening after dinner.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Distant Shouting Coming Closer

Walking in the Tuileries on a Sunday evening. Sunshine at last but a blast of cold wind from the north means heavy sweaters and a jacket. Blue iris everywhere, colouring the light, scenting the wind; chestnut trees are cropped into disciplined box shapes. Ducklings are huddled under their mothers’ wings. Tranquility? Alas no.
On the other side of the river, near the Assembly Nationale, raucous voices raised, police whistles blowing. Sirens rend the air where at 7pm church bells should be heard.
This was a march by conservatives, many of them Catholics, against gay marriage. Two bills have been passed and were enacted this week. But that is not all. This week, also, Paris was the focus of European concerns about jobless youth and its consequences for political stability.
Gay marriage protests are just the tip of the iceberg. Daily life is now full of tensions and somber realities. And the man up top who carries the burden is barely up to the task. He stood at a lectern next to David Cameron, in Paris last week, as the latter spoke following the Woolwich attack. The cameras kept returning to shots of Françoise Hollande who could not keep still while his guest spoke. He was flapping papers and twitching, his facial expression that of someone who really needed to go to the lavatory. Perhaps that was his excuse? I think there are other reasons for his nervousness. The pressures on him are domestic, international and personal. And he is only a mediocrity, who fell into the job of Presidential candidate and fell into the job of President, unprepared. He is not capable of dealing with the challenges facing France.
So he has the IMF and Germany telling him what to do. He has an embarrassing legal position regarding his “First Lady”. He has difficult questions to answer concerning his own financial and fiscal declarations. Above all he has insuperable domestic problems, which, according to a book out this week could bring about a revolution in France.
The raucous voices raised over gay marriage would seem dulcet murmurings compared to what might happen if the population snaps out of its torpor and reacts against the failure of Hollande’s government to solve the country’s economic and political problems.
Jaques Attali, distinguished author; founder and first director of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, was Mitterand’s youthful advisor who suggested bringing Hollande into the President’s team and who much later played a role in Sarkhozy’s government. He voices the fears expressed for over a year among thinking French people in his new book “Urgences Francaises” (French Urgencies). He is not alone. Yesterday in Paris, (May 28th) the German Finance minister expressed the growing fears that pervade EU nations. Rising youth unemployment rates, 26 % in France but over 50% in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, are not only among the uneducated but also the qualified children of the executive class. Past failure to stimulate private enterprise, to support the growth of small and medium sized enterprises and the reliance on social benefits instead are the cause of political panic among Eurozone leaders.
Petty little bureaucrat that he is, Hollande’s answer is that the eurozone should work towards a joint economic government with its own budget that could take on specific projects including tackling youth unemployment. The ice age will have arrived before that notion get’s to first base.
Jaques Attali’s book encapsulates the entire frightful scenario with the brilliant logic of a man who has been watching from inside French government for so long that he knows better than anyone what grave problems and un-negotiable obstacles exist in France--a nation always socially and economically divided with few escalators for upward mobility: violent revolution has been the only means of reconstruction historically for a nation unable to gradually reform its rigid administrative and fiscal structures based on its irreconcilable class divide.
Youth unemployment across the eurozone threatens that ‘peace in our time’ that the EU’s idealistic creators imagined would prevent future conflicts on our continent. Even Hollande acknowledges that people are turning away from the European concept. Meanwhile, welfare is the opium of the people. Take it away and the psychological, fiscal and traditionally opposed class conflicts will bring catastrophic revolt. Pass me a parachute.


Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Joan of Arc Show (or No, No, No!)

May 8th is the day France commemorates the end of WW2 in 1945. On the Sunday following the 8th, traffic stops while dignitaries lay wreaths of red white and blue flowers at the foot of the gold statue of Jeanne d’Arc on horseback almost below my window. I’ll be awakened by the tootling of a trumpet playing the Marseillaise. But I have so effectively sound proofed my bedroom that this morning I emerged from my 8 hours to hear shouting.
May 1st is usually the day when the Front Nationale assembles its members around Jeanne’s statue –a symbol of French national pride--to listen to a speech by its leader Marine Le Pen.  Today, however, extremists who find Marine’s views too moderate were there. The cross roads were blocked in every direction and a relatively small group of militants were being addressed while Police Nationale stood in a line at the entrance to my street. Only a few had riot shields and their posture was relatively relaxed.
Then a more aggressive counter demo erupted. Shouting was emerging from the corner of the Place and cameras were being directed at a spot out of my line of sight and upwards. A large fire engine, ladder ready, maneuvered into position while another stood to the rear of the statue. The building on that corner houses some state offices and left wing union members were occupying its balconies. Police reinforcements now began running around and donning riot helmets. Is this unusual? No. The Joan of Arc Show often turns to riots.
I’m writing about it because a few days ago a former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, and one of the leaders of the plot that removed Margaret Thatcher from office in 1990, publicly recanted on his former pro-European position. In a long article in The Times, hemadvocated that Britain get out of the EU. It is now 23 plus years since the historic moment in the Commons when Lawson’s co-conspirator Geoffrey Howe made his speech accusing Thatcher of breaking the bats with which her side were playing cricket in the negotiations to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Thatcher did not want the uk to join that precursor to the creation of the single currency. Her famous speech in which she said “No, no, no” to any concessions that would erode British sovereignty was the cause of her downfall. John Major who took office that same month (November 1990) after being elected as the new Conservative leader continued to follow the dream of the single currency until the UK was thrown out of the ERM by its failure to keep to the conditions. Base rates of 17% were avoided and the country was rescued from the folly propounded by Chancellor Lawson. But so soon after the bells from Thatcher’s funeral have ceased to toll, her so-called “Brilliant” Chancellor (who resigned in November 1989 and was replaced by John Major) has emerged from the closet as an advocate of British exit from the EU.
Does the little scrap at the Joan of Arc statue have any bearing on this? Only too clearly. The extreme right demanding stringent limits on immigration are not only the French Front Nationale. Their sentiments are echoed in other EU countries including the UK. EU policies permit free migration from poorer to richer member states, while failing to prevent illegal immigration. This means the raucous shouts of the extremists will be heard increasingly in every EU capital.
The beautiful floral wreaths that pay tribute to the French and Allied fallen in WW2 and whose touching messages bring thoughts of peace in our time, will not survive the coming conflicts. The Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, the unemployment crisis, the lack of EU democracy will bring worse than this ritual piece of French street politics.
No no no? But yes, yes, yes, the uk should start dismantling the chains that bind it to a dangerously insolvent, and frighteningly divided European Union.

For more background on the Lawson-Thatcher battle over the ERM see Chapter 1 of my biography of John Major available from Amazon and other Internet bookshops (Macdonald and Futura). And for details of Major’s role in the Black Wednesday crisis when Britain left the ERM in 1991, see the Postscript to the paperback edition (Futura).

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Frenchmen and Food!

I simply love the way my lover serves food. Be it a picnic or some dishes I have cooked, it’s the way he arranges it all on the platters and the way he uncorks the champagne and the wines. He’s a heavy weight businessman but that does not diminish his grasp of that French art of dealing with food. He’s French, of course and it seems that Frenchmen know all about cooking and serving food. I don’t mean ‘The French’ entirely. I mean French men. The only two French women who ever cooked anything when they stayed with me in London had one dish each in their repertoire. One did Croque Monsieur when her boyfriend visited. The other did Moule Marinere when I introduced her to a Francophile ex of mine. The moule were superb, as were the bottles of Pouille Fume he brought,  the whole lot, served before a blazing log fire in my Montagu Square salon.  The love affair lasted a few weeks. Perhaps the one dish introduction needed some additions? One should not rest on one’s culinary laurels!
But back to the men, much the best part of the deal. The best French Chefs, in France or abroad, are well known to be creative, temperamental and exacting. But although a few females have been trying to erode their solid ranks, they remain dominant in the kitchen. Two French Chefs were friends of mine in London. They worked at prestigious embassies but moonlighted to make me a three course buffet for a concert and soirée I produced for 100 people. They did a great job and the ticket holders were ecstatic about everything from the ambience to, yes the concert, and of course the food. When, I was asked, would I do another one?
Since then I’ve moved to Paris, where I have to say I find not all French know that much about food or wine. Perhaps they take for granted the fact that even the simplest brasserie or café can rustle up a delicious omelette or steak and frites. Even though the standard is declining as costs rise, these compare favourably with many London equivalents. Some French seem not to expect a foreigner to know anything about food or wine. But I was taught French dining rules as a child. Besides, there is more good wine and more good French cuisine available at good restaurants in London than in France except at the very top establishments. I’m not saying that the food lacks quality at places like Laurent where President Hollande and his First Umbrella Carrier, the Rottweiler, (yes its still raining all the time) dine occasionally--a few steps from the Elysée’s back gate. I simply think that the Michelin star system is over rated: each time I’ve eaten at a Michelin starred place, I find the more the stars, the worse the food. Crème seems to be the main ingredient, plus salt overdose, and vegetables are mere slivers of decoration. One invariable feels sick later.
But eating at top restaurants is not the point. France is acknowledged as the home of great cuisine. Due to this, gourmets from all over the world fly in to discover how to shop, cook and serve great French dishes and wines. Hence, there are cooking schools all over France where these devotees train as adepts. French people also attend cooking schools in Paris, often in the lunch breaks.
French cooking was apparently imported from Italy by the ghastly Catherine de Medici, bride of Henry I (of France) along with high heels. She did a good job on marketing both.
Paris boasts several cooking schools, one of which, ‘Cook’n with Class’ in Montmartre attracts an international clientele who are taught by English speaking Chefs. This school will have a stand at the France Exhibition at Earl’s Court the coming weekend of Jan 18th-20th.
Other stands at the Exhibit include estate agencies, financiers and property renovators. Their stands may have been booked before the election of Francois Hollande last May as President for five years and the killer taxes he has since imposed on foreign property owners plus their incomes, or indeed on the wealthy French. One of the latter is Gerard Depardieu the actor who has invested heavily in restaurants, one of which my lover and I patronise for its excellent simplicity. His decision to become a resident of Russia makes him one of the more celebrated examples of a wealth drain of billions that has occurred since Hollande’s anti- wealth policies came into effect last October. In October-November 2012 France’s exchequer suffered a net loss of 53bn euros as individuals and businesses decamped; plus money supply has been falling at an accelerating rate since Hollande’s investiture. Bankruptcies are rising and the private sector is in revolt.
I grieve for French enterprises whose representation at the London Exhibition demonstrates such hope that France with all its wonderful amenities for leisure will attract foreigners as property owners, investors, tourists and foodies. Alas, while the cooking skills will remain, they may reap more profit for their talented cooks and restaurateurs outside France rather than at home.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Fifty Shades of Black

Put your Black Rags on, Babes! It’s the festive season. I was at a party the other night. The mostly French women there were dressed in deepest black from topknot to stiletto. There was plenty of texture, lace, damask, crochet, bits of fur and fluff—but black. I was the only woman wearing a colour! Shocking pink! One other British woman was wearing a white cardigan and my friend Tara was in a silver top.
Shopping for something new? Every boutique window in my quartier of St Honoré is draped in, yes, Black. With one exception, that of a recently opened boutique in the Rue Place Marché St Honoré where the windows are filled with multi-coloured trousers, jackets and sleeveless dyed fur gilets. I’m not quite sure I’ve understood the formula or the marketing sense. I don’t know where a Parisian would go dressed in these clothes. To her country house perhaps?. A friend of mine who lectures in fashion complains that going on the Metro in the morning is “like going to a funeral.” And the mood matches the colour. Somber.
The only women one sees dressed colourfully on the streets are usually artists. But generally, coloured clothes are not considered chic. I have heard a shade of magenta described as “flashy.”
Recent fashion seasons made grey into the new black and recently one of the boutiques in Rue St Honoré was displaying clothes in shades of beige and brown mingled with white, one of this year’s fashion favorites until the Christmas window displays took over. When I cycled down Rue St Roch on Daisy Belle just before Christmas I was shocked to see that, even the Pronuptia boutique was displaying long black dresses. Eek! Is black in for weddings now too?
To anyone who knows anything about the effect of colour on the spirits, this black fixation could be one reason why so many Parisians are on anti-depressants. Not that black cannot be sexy and alluring, but the sight of sallow unmade up faces framed with non descript black puffa jackets gives one the heebie jeebies. That’s why a slash of red lipstick or a nattily coiled scarf in some bright shade of anything but black can offer relief. And if French women have a talent it's for draping and coiling that foulard. Lately it seems they are not bothering with those flashes of colour. The endless procession of black clad bodies in the street (in baggy leggings and puffa jackets) says something about the French woman’s fear of being different from the crowd. At work she wants to avoid being conspicuous. Out for the evening, she wants to be the most attractive and chic of any group but she does not want to be too adventurous. But could this black fixation be a statement of class? Are we talking petit bourgeois? It is evident in my turns around the streets of St Honore and up into Rue Faubourg St Honore that it’s the more expensive shops that display coloured clothes. Does money mean a greater sense of liberation from convention, a carefree self expression? Or could it be that these very expensive boutiques in Rue Castiglione and the Faubourg St Honoré are patronized by rich foreign women? My feeling is that French women always prefer black whatever their social status.
One evening coming home on the Metro from a dinner at a friend’s, I was impressed by two elegant women in expensive looking, fur trimmed black coats. They sat opposite me and I watched them fascinated. They were clearly from the upper bourgeoisie, confident, manicured and well heeled, expressing a hard self absorption. To their right a young girl, with loose hair and pretty without make up in baggy beige jodhpur leggings with trainers and a brown puffa jacket looked them up and down repeatedly. Her clothes, her open mouthed expression and her wooly-hatted boyfriend suggested students. The more she looked at her rich sisters, the more she portrayed a yearning for something beyond her reach, a sense of being denied entrance to an unattainable world. The rich sisters, at a guess in their late thirties or early forties had clearly made a substantial investment in new winter coats. What other colour would they choose than black?
The girl gave a resigned sigh and leaned back against her boyfriend’s shoulder, envious eyes shut. Ah, I thought, surely love is better than a rich black coat?