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Friday, June 12, 2015

Lunch at Hotel Baudy in Giverny

Although Monet’s house and garden are the biggest and brightest stars in the Giverny sky, when you stroll the street you’ll find other glittering orbs in Monet’s firmament.  One spot you could walk by without noticing is Baudy’s Hotel.  Notice it!  Go inside.  Sit down.  Practice your French to the accompanying music of hysterical laughter, and eat like a king, or at least a well-fed duke. You won’t be the first.

The Baudy story begins in 1886, when a group of American artists visited Giverny and stumbled into the small grocery-café run by Angelina and Gaston Baudy.  True entrepreneurs never miss an opportunity.  The Baudys not only put up the artists (whom they described as speaking gibberish), but later added rooms, a back garden, and enclosed studios where artists could paint in bad weather, and when painting nudes.  Certainly wish my wife were that understanding.  “Honey, I’ve been thinking about converting the garage…you know, a quiet place where I could take some selfies…”

Hotel Baudy added a garden and two more studios. The hotel soon became a popular hangout, center of art, and the go-to place for Monet’s guests.  Monet was particular about his schedule and had a keen eye for punctuality. The story goes that he would send his car to pick up his guests (the hotel is 5 minutes away) and take them back, just to make sure they arrived and left on time.

And who were some of the names of note who slept under Madame Baudy’s roof.  Only the who’s who of the Impressionist era.  Paul Cézanne.  The sculptor Auguste Rodin (The Thinker).  Alfred Sisley (landscapes).  Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  The American, Mary Cassatt.

Renoir's Winter Landscape at Giverny, 1894
We often think of artists as working singularly, every canvas a product of only their own imagination. Not so.  Many of the Impressionists were friends, and shared a profusion of ideas.  Looking from one artist’s works to another’s, you often find a symbiosis of color, technique, style and design, filtered through their own eyes.  The very best originality does not form in a vacuum.
Alfred Sisley, Hill Path

Mary Cassatt, Woman in Green
By the way, when was the Impressionist era?  “Please, or please tell me,” you cry!  Ok.  To paint with broad strokes, which most of the Impressionists did, I offer these slipshod dates:  Born in the 1840s, died mostly around the turn of the century, except for a few, like Monet who died in 1926.

complimentary appetizer

Quintessentially French

Skip forward a few years to the spring of 2015.  We were hungry and stepped smartly into the Hotel Baudy.  Immediately we were transported into Impressionism's glory days, before the turn of the century.  You would swear nothing has changed.  Rustic.  Atmospheric. A mixture of French and gibberish floating through the air. Well, a few things have.  Originally there were only two tables, now there are many more.  Also, don’t count on getting a room.  The place is now called the L’ancien Hotel Baudy Restaurant-Museum.

After lunch, do not forget to stroll out back (where the toilettes are located).  You’ll find an ambrosial garden, the original studio, and a path that leads through beautiful and bountiful trees to the studio where Cézanne painted.

Back Garden

The first studio

I will not describe the lunch because the menu changes with the seasons.  But, Stevie Wonder could make your choices and you’d sing his praises between bites.  The French can teach anyone how to eat, and how to linger just a while longer for coffee, brandy, and conversation.  For now, be content to look at the photos and salivate…and maybe consider grabbing a palate and a few tubes of paint.  As for nude models…on the advice of counsel, you’re on your own.  I swear I did not paint that woman!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Claude Monet's House at Giverny

It may come as a shock, but Claude Monet didn’t live in his garden.  He lived in a very fine house overlooking the garden, which he rented for several years before he bought it.  For more than forty years, he would live in Giverny, expanding his art and expanding his country home into a warren of spacious rooms, splendid with bountiful color and art.  The interior runs from his studio on one end, to the fabulous kitchen on the other.  By the time of his death in 1926, he had built three studios, one the size of a high school gymnasium, used to produce his gargantuan water lily studies.

Claude Monet not only lived to paint, but also lived to sculpt a way of life that we would call stylish and avant-garde.  He was a modern man, an art collector, and ruler of his domain. Where did he get the money?  Weren’t all Impressionists dirt poor from start to finish?  Not hardly mon ami.  Monet was apparently a master businessman and his paintings sold well.  More and more, art dealers came to him. Unlike Van Gogh, who sold only a couple of painting in his lifetime and died a pauper, Monet’s fame spread throughout the world.  Other famous artists, as well as the art dealers, visited often.  Monet entertained them in style, and his home reflected his rustically lavish life.

The dining room  today

Design and color 
Dining Room

It had not always been so.  Before he was able to buy Giverny, he struggled and lived on the edge of bankruptcy for years.  By the time he purchased the house and grounds, those days had been lost in the shadows of yesterday.

Monet was a man of color and design, reflected in the length and breadth of his estate.  This was his world, a wonderful place that even to this day sparkles with fresh delights, and blossoms with magical hues, from corner to corner.  Outside, the vast garden still spreads in an amazing burst of rainbow colors.  Monet also kept a two and a half acre kitchen garden and much of his family’s food came from there and the surrounding fields where he and his family and friends, shot rabbits, and gathered mushrooms, or fished in his famous ponds . The house fit right into his expressive dream of creating a self-contained center of tranquility. This extended into his house, with the kitchen an amalgam of rich blue tiles and spotless copper pots, and the dining room an array of sun-swept yellows. 
Monet's wife's bedroom, Monet's also has a single bed, but the room is more sparsely decorated.
Other rooms held patterns of blue and white.  He fancied none of the dull and mundane colors popular at the time.  Even the startlingly green shutters were chosen by Monet, bold and bright, unlike the usual muted shades on houses of the day.

Every room but the kitchen held masterpiece canvases he'd purchased.  Cézanne.  Degas.  Japanese wood block prints and Japanese ceramics of every variety.  Today, what you see on the walls are copies, with few exceptions.

Japanese ceramics

About the kitchen.  First things you notice are the blue tiles from Rouen, the array of original, shiny copper pots, and an enameled iron stove only a bit smaller than a Sherman tank.  The stove is a wood-burning Briffault, sadly no longer made.  Oh, you can get something similar in gas or electric, but you may have to take out a second mortgage.  Prices I saw ranged from over $8000 for 1/3 size version, to La Cornue Gran Palais Cooking Stove for $47,300.  Just the thing for boiling water for Ramin noodles.

A wood-burning stove of this style has no temperature controls, other than the heat of the wood.  When the fire is going, each oven holds a different temperature, and the same with each of the iron stovetop plates.

The kitchen was a center of activity, as most kitchens are, and I suspect Claude Monet viewed a dining table as just another canvas, with the kitchen his palette.

Monet was serious about food, looking into the details of every recipe he’d gathered, personally selecting fresh ingredients, and dictating the bountiful courses served to family and guests.  If you would like to read more about the routines of life at Giverny, I refer you to a wonderful book by Claire Joyes, Monet’s Cookery Notebooks. 

At only one cent for a hardback copy, you really should be ashamed.

In a home, ambiance is everything, and when you walk through Monet’s home, you feel as comfortable as if the house were built last year.  He was the kind of modernist man who could seamlessly connect art to canvas, garden, and home design.  

The rooms are open and effortlessly joined, with large windows that give the feel of indoor spaces spilling out into the garden.  Makes you understand that Claude Monet was not only a man of his time, but a man whose art, design, and sense of color transcend time.

The first studio as it is today.

Claude Monet in his studio

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Eggplant, Beef, Tomato, and Mushroom Casserole

Time out from travel writing to share a recipe that will keep a fork in your hand, waiting for seconds.  But, of course if you’d rather just have something quick from McNugget…But, no, you’re particular, a connoisseur , even if you can’t spell the word and still drink wine straight from the bottle.  Perhaps I’m being too harsh and you’re really a jelly jar kind of drinker.

We all have our weaknesses.  My one and only failing is, when I cook, I cook too much.  Dinner for two morphs into a week of leftovers.  In this case, it doesn’t matter a whit.  I could eat this casserole everyday for a month and still have a lingering taste for more.

Eggplant With Beef, Tomato, and Mushrooms

2 large eggplants, cut into half-inch thick rounds
4 (or more) tablespoons olive oil
Couple of teaspoons of salt, or more
1 medium onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, thin sliced
1 lb freshly ground beef
2 cups fresh mushrooms, quartered
3 generous shakes of powdered cinnamon
black pepper to taste
1 (28 oz) can of whole tomatoes, pureed in a blender or food processor, juice and all
12 oz fresh (not shredded!) mozzarella, sliced

Some Hints:  I use fresh mozzarella, packaged whole and still in it’s juice. Yes, of course I drain it!  As for the ground beef, don’t settle for the packaged and compressed variety.  Get your butcher to grind some for you RIGHT NOW.  Whole, canned tomatoes taste better to me, so I use them instead of diced or canned tomato sauce.

Wipe a 9 x 12 baking dish with olive oil.

Preheat the broiler, slice the eggplants, paint them (both sides) with olive oil, dust them with salt and pepper and slip them in the oven.  When one side is lightly browned, flip the slices over and lightly brown the other side.  When they’re done, set them aside.  Change the oven setting from broil to 375ºF (190ºC).

Add olive oil to a pan, put in the diced onion and sliced garlic.  Stir until the onions are limp, but not brown.  Add the ground beef and stir, breaking it up until it looks grainy and is just barely cooked through.  Add the cinnamon, salt and pepper (to taste) and stir.  Stir in the quartered mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are barely beginning to soften.

Putting it all together:  Step 1.  Pour a third of the blended tomato sauce in the baking dish and spread it around.  Put a third of the eggplant slices on top, then a third of the meat.  Repeat until everything is used up, with an eggplant layer on top.

Cover the filled baking dish with foil, put it on a baking sheet with sides.  Add a cup of water to surround the baking dish, and slide everything into the oven. Bake for 90 minutes.  This is a sloppy dish and the baking sheet will catch any spills.

Step 2.  Take the baking pan and baking dish out of the oven, remove the foil and throw it away. Put the sliced mozzarella on top, and put everything back in the oven. Do not cover.  Leave it until the cheese is melted and just beginning to brown.

Serve with rice.

Caution:  Do not eat too much.  You will become fat and be all alone and miserable as you drink from your jelly jar.  Then you will also drink too much and forget if connoisseur begins with a C or a K.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Monet's Garden: A Masterpiece of Color and Design

The famous arch in the Upper Garden

Usually I write a pithy commentary, but not today.   I’ll write very little and allow the photos to tell the real story.  After all, Monet’s Garden is not about writing, but about color and light and capturing ever-changing images.  You just think you’ve seen a garden.  The grounds of Monet’s hideaway in Giverny will overpower you with the form and sheer immensity of color.

Upper garden to the left, lower garden to the right.

The Garden is actually two gardens, the upper garden (The Clos Normand), closer to the house, with overflowing rows and mounds of blossoming color.  Across the road (via underpass walkway) is the lower garden (The Water Garden), a woody and bamboo paradise of green, placid ponds strewn with lily pads, bridged with emerald arches evocative of Japanese styles, and in the afternoons the wondrous croaking of hundreds of frogs.  It was here that Monet painted the famous (and numerous) water lily studies.

Why so many?  It takes a little fuzzy explaining, rather like explaining why you swooned over a brassy red head yesterday, but today your heart belongs to a timid brunette.

That’s not as far fetched a metaphor as you’d imagine.  Lighting was the thing in Monet’s (and the impressionists’) mind.  Study a tree, for example.  Green, right?  Well, yes, as well as some black and brown, even among the foliage.  As the sun passes, you glance back and suddenly see whites and yellows and four shades of green.  But, it’s a just green freaking tree!  Different times, different lighting, different viewpoints.

Intuitively we recognize this.  Hollywood developed an industry around employing light and perspective to turn ordinary people into glamorous stars of the galaxy.

As has been said many times, Impressionism’s lifeblood is capturing an impression, a glimpse, a mood.  Light and gray shadows decorate a white house, yet even those grays and their shapes change in the rising and fading light of day.

As a matter of fact, Monet’s observations led him to assert that colors change every seven minutes.  With his water lilies, he tried to capture the changes, the impressions of the light as the sun swept across the sky, and the clouds danced between heaven and earth.  A mammoth task and one that led him to construct a huge ‘water lily’ studio and produce a prodigious array of massive canvases.

Want to know more about the basics, including opening hours (and months) for the garden, as well as how to get to this fabulous spot that should be in every art lover’s bucket of paint?

What is not said is that if you’re an artist (starving and talent optional), tickets are available that let you have the garden to yourself after 6:00 p.m., when the curators drive the riff-raff out and leave the immense gardens to budding Monets until the witching hour of 8 p.m..   We had a group of eight and other than another group of similar size, we painted alone, often not within sight of one another.

Is that the end of my story?  Heavens no!  There are tempting French meals to discover, Monet’s house to explore!  All within a short walk down the main street of the tiny village of Giverny.  Come back when I tell the rest of the story of my visit.

A quiet respite in the upper garden, The Clos Normand