13 March, 2012

Killing me softly: Art Nouveau & chocolate.

The thing about having friends all over is, well, that they're all over.  They can feel an eternity away, despite all the available techie solutions.  On the plus side, this gives me the excellent excuse to visit all sorts of places.  Like Brussels.
Seen from the roof of the Museum of Musical instruments (formerly an Art Nouveau department store), Brussels on a clear day can utterly charm with its jumble of architectural styles winding outward from a medieval, cobblestoned heart. 
I would argue that no visit to Brussels is complete without a visit to the Grand-Place, a square surrounded by the astonishing fifteenth century city hall and the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (housed in the equally stunning, nineteenth century Maison du Roi).  The Museum purportedly has a nice medieval art collection.  I didn't go in; the day was just too fine.
In front of the very Gothic city hall, these newlyweds posed with assorted family members.  With the flow of immigration the face of the average Belgian (certainly in the bigger cities) has changed, and this can be reflected on the sidewalks of this particularly pan-European city.
Even if you've seen more than your share of impressive city squares, the Grand-Place can actually take your breath away.  It did mine, with its sumptuously decorated guildhouses glinting in the sunlight.
Another endearing square is the Grand Sablon.  It is tailor-made for you if you love to window-shop for antiques, art--and fine chocolate.  To give you energy, remember to start, pause or end with a restorative high tea at a hundred-year old Brussels institution, the Wittamer pastry shop and cafe.
And yes, they have absolutely gorgeous-looking chocolates, but chocolate snobs from the world over really line up for the most acclaimed chocolates in Belgium, made by Pierre Marcolini.  Yes, I did taste some, but I found my own little nirvana, in the beautifully appointed chocolate palace of Patrick Roger. Crowned Meilleur Ouvrier de France (and yes, thus French), the man has a particular gift for associating unusual flavors and providing a complex, yet intriguingly balanced taste experience.  I kid you not, it really is an experience.  How could an astute blend of yuzu, lime and chocolate not be?  And oh, the textures...the caliber of chocolate... 
Oh, and yes, there was a life-like fifty kilo chocolate sculpture of an orangutan in the window.  Just to stop you in your tracks if the heady smell of chocolate hadn't already. To get a better impression, take a few minutes to visit Patrick Roger's Paris kitchen with David Lebovitz, one of my very favorite food writers blogging today (below):
Beyond the chocolate, Brussels is made for wandering, even if you may be taken aback by the parlous state of some irreplaceable buildings. Brussels, as rich as it is in architectural treasures, is critically poor in tax revenue, and the facades and streets often show it.  It is a city that has largely been transformed into a place where people come in to work, before retreating to the more tranquil bedroom communities ringing it.
Despite its challenges, you will certainly find your pleasure in Brussels, especially if your particular weakness happens to be for things of an edible nature...and that even if chocolate isn't your thing.
I was also charmed by some quirky independent bookstores, as well as the more established publishers, like Taschen.  I killed some time admiring the work of Helmut Newton, Bert Stern's Marilyn images and the delicate oddity of Mark Ryden (image below) at the Taschen book emporium.
Of course, if your budget permits, there are any number of Art Nouveau buildings scattered across the city just waiting to be scooped up.  There were a lot of for sale signs, a sign of the financial times...Does this one catch your fancy?
Take a moment to consider the idea, over a dish of waterzooi in one of the city's innumerable brasseries and bistros. Or grab a cornet of twice-fried frites on the street.  They may call them French fries in English, but they are at their best in this city.  My children can attest to this...
As for the Art Nouveau: after the industrial boom of the late 1800s, there was this brief, brilliant flowering in architecture.  The commisioned house for those on the cutting edge became a work of organically-inspired art, a showcase for the pinnacles of craftsmanship in iron-working, stone-cutting and wood-working.  The forms in art nouveau, whether in sculpture, architecture, jewelry or graphic design are sinuous, often elaborate and very pleasing to the eye.  Certainly to mine anyway. 

The leading figure in this movement, certainly in Belgium if not the whole of Europe was the Belgian Victor Horta. I paid a visit to his first private commission, the Maison Autrique, lovingly maintained with its original fittings and furnished with period-appropriate, often original furnishings. 
All too soon, the clocks chimed and my time in Brussels drew to a close. It was time to say goodbye to good friends. 
At least there was a box of really good chocolate to console me upon my return to Amsterdam...

22 February, 2012

A weekend in Paris, by design.

Every now and then, a girl's got to try something a bit different.
I decided to impersonate an interior designer.  Well, not any one designer in particular.  I just needed to be one, for one weekend in Paris, so that I could attend one of the most important trade shows in Europe, Maison & Objet. I went with a couple of my favorite people, and once we got a sense of the scale of the expo, we realized that the two days we'd given ourselves to visit were far from enough. But we made the best of things...

I have been meaning to put these photos up for so long, it's embarassing.  The event occurred in January after all.  But having adored Jean Dujardin in the just-released silent film The Artist (definitely a must-see), I decided that perhaps here, too, fewer words can be more.  There are indeed stories behind these creators, and if you're interested in anything in particular, feel free to leave a question in the comments section...Enjoy!

I also made time to visit "365 Charming Everyday Things", a Japanese design exhibition highlighting the craft--and art--in Japanese products at the Bastille Design Center (itself a lovely industrial space that originally housed an ironmonger).  You can find out more about the individual products, their esthetics and the impetus behind the project here.  Look closely at the images to see the clever design twists and humor.

(Can't resist explaining that these little houses are air purifiers.  The roof element is carbon powder molded with holes to maximize air circulation...)
Makes me want to make my own stuff!

25 January, 2012


How are you?  It's, um, been a while. 

A couple of holidays have rolled by, and I just can't seem to have the kind of spare time I had in the countryside.  But here are some images to give you an idea of what I have been doing.
I did spend Christmas and New Year's in France, but we had absolutely no access to internet the entire time we were there. Five different France Telecom technicians came to the house, to no avail.  Grr.
It was pretty frustrating, particularly since I actually did have time for a change, between seeing friends and cooking.  But at least there were these pretty Dutch amaryllis to admire.  I coulnd't decide whether I liked the flowers or the curling stem ends better.  Don't those look spectacular?  Reminds me of Martha Stewart and her ilk soaking sliced radishes to turn them into roses...
I visited Arles, with its Salon de Santons (an expo of handmade figurines made for Provencal themed Nativity scenes), its Roman ruins, and its van Gogh postcards.
(And yes, it was this beautiful pretty much my entire stay in France.)
The decorations were all still up, of course, even though a good number of the restaurants were closed for the holidays.
There was still lots of fun browsing to be done, including at a well-regarded bookshop filled with  exquisite literary editions (lots of poetry) and witty, well-designed children's books: Actes Sud. The bookstore, with its over 40,000 well-chosen titles is also the headquarters of a well-regarded  publisher.  Definitely worth dropping in, even if you can't actually read French, as they have scads of lavishly illustrated art and photography books.
I spent hours just wandering, with no particular goal. 
I resisted buying the tourist claptrap, even though these soaps did look as though they would make nice gifts.  I love the Dutch word for crap and clutter, it fits here: prullaria, pronounced like an aria.
After this we headed north toward Eparnay, center of the sprawling Champagne region. 
We stayed overnight at a lovely chateau. As one does. 
After the dining, time for the wining.  Or rather the stocking up of wine.
The highlight of our visit was to L Huot Fils, whose entry-level Champagne has been gilded with three stars (the highest possible rating--as well as a coup de coeur title) by the discriminating reviewers at the Guide Hachette.

Their three-star Champagne, the Carte Noire Reserve, is all the more impressive considering it goes for well under 15 euros a bottle. 
We were given an in-depth, personal tour of the property by the owners, with detailed explanations about the history, exacting process and stringent requirements for making Champagne. In the image below, the bottle is being held up to show the sediment gathered at the bottom and yet to be removed.  Above, the wine bottles are minutely turned the old-fasahioned way, but they also have machines these days: finding enough skilled labor is increasingly difficult.
These third and fourth generation vintners were as charming and welcoming to strangers as one could possibly imagine.  We were able to taste the full range of their wines, in between swapping jokes and stories.  When you go to this region, by all means, visit a big-name producer, but don't miss out on the smaller, well-regarded spots such as this one.  They are making exciting, accessible, affordable wine, and all it takes is a call a day in advance...for a highly enjoyable morning.
After that, all you have to do is open the Champagne you've bought, and celebrate with finesse and no end of pleasure.
I wish you a happy 2012--newly become the Year of the Dragon.
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