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F Is for France
A Is for ...
Absinthe, an iconic drink intimately linked to the French cafés of the Left Bank, is a highly alcoholic beverage derived from the flowers and leaves of the herb known as Artemisia absinthium (or "grand wormwood"). It also contains green anise, sweet fennel, and — the key to its mind-bending properties — the chemical thujone. It is usually a bright green color, hence its popular name, the "green muse" or la fée verte ("green fairy"). Absinthe is traditionally drunk diluted with water, with the addition of sugar.
Elaborate rituals have developed around the preparation and consumption of absinthe, involving special glasses and perforated spoons to permit the mixing of water and sugar as they are added to the drink:
The Proper Way to Prepare Absinthe in Polite Society
1. Pour a quantity of absinthe into the glass, amounting to about one-fifth of the total capacity (1 to 1 ½ ounces is common).
2. Place the absinthe spoon across the glass, with the notch in the spoon resting on the rim of the glass. Place a sugar cube in the spoon.
3. Slowly drizzle a steady volume of water over the sugar cube, allowing the cube to become saturated first, until the glass is full or according to taste.
4. Close your eyes and await the approach of the green fairy.
Recipe from the Wormwood Society
Absinthe was hugely popular from the 1860s onward in France and continental Europe, so much so that the hour between five and six p.m. was called l'heure verte in bars and cafés. It was the muse of the poet Baudelaire, and the lurid colors of Van Gogh's paintings have been attributed to the psychedelic influence of the drink. Edgar Degas's 1873 painting L'absinthe epitomizes the loneliness and drugged haze of the absinthe drinker in the popular imagination. One detractor observed:
Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.
Absinthe was thus associated with social disorder, degeneracy, and crime. The reputation of absinthe reached such a low
Nineteenth-Century Absinthe Recipe
Grande wormwood, dried and cleaned 2.5 kilograms
Hyssop flower, dried 500 grams
Citronated Melissa, dried 500 grams
Green anise, crushed 2 kilograms
Alcohol (85 degrees) 16 liters
Infuse the entire cucurbit for 24 hours, add 15 liters of water, and distill carefully to produce 15 liters of product, adding:
Alcohol (85 degrees) 40 liters
Ordinary water 45 liters
Produces 100 liters at 45 degrees; mix and let rest.
Translated from Traité de la Fabrication des Liqueurs, 1882
point that it was banned in most Western countries in the early twentieth century, including the United States in 1912 and France in 1915. In the United States, absinthe was banned until 2007 (the French ban was not lifted until 2011).
Recent years, however, have seen an absinthe revival, with the arrival of new brands boasting names evocative of the drink's bohemian origins, such as La Fée Absinthe or the Australian brand Moulin Rooz.
The French have traditionally been famed for their tolerance of adultery by those in public office, especially with regard to their presidents. Perhaps the most famous case of publicly tolerated adultery was that of President François Mitterrand, who had a whole secret family, unbeknownst to the French public. The secret was only revealed after the president's death in 1996, when his lover, Anne Pingeot, and their daughter, Mazarine, appeared at his grave. The French public was disgusted — not so much at the president's behavior, but rather at the press, for revealing details of his private life.
Cinq à sept ("five to seven p.m.") was the phrase used to describe the hours when married French couples would traditionally cheat on their spouses. In the days when writers such as Victor Hugo kept an entire establishment for their mistress, the cinq à sept was the time for discreet liaisons, before a gentleman would set off back home for dinner with his wife. By the late twentieth century, however, all that had changed. "In Paris, no one makes love in the evening anymore; everyone is too tired," sighs a character in Françoise Sagan's 1966 novel La Chamade. Nowadays, the term cinq à sept is more likely to be used in the Quebeçois sense, of "happy hour" at the bar.
Under French law, infidelity can be "intellectual" as well as physical. In other words, excessive smoking, playing too much soccer, spending too much time with the local bishop, and phone sex can all be grounds for divorce. In 1986, a French court granted a divorce to a husband on the grounds of the "intellectual infidelity" of his wife. The reason for the divorce was that the wife had allowed a rival to assume intellectual precedence in her thoughts over her husband, thus giving her husband the impression that she considered him worthless.
Contrary to their reputation for indifference to animals, the French can be extraordinarily caring to them. In the Breton village of Saint-Léger-des-Prés, for example, it is illegal to slander donkeys by the use of such insulting terminology as "jackass," "dumb as an ass," etc. Anybody breaking this law is required to make amends by offering apologies in the form of carrots or sugar lumps to the donkeys residing within the boundaries of the commune. The law was introduced in 1991 by the then mayor of Saint-Léger-des-Prés, who was inordinately fond of donkeys. He cited, in support of the law, the French author Chateaubriand: "We impugn the name of the ass with a thousand idiocies, unworthy of comparison to him."
In the town of Granville in northwestern France, elephants are banned on the beach. The ban dates from 2009, when local circuses came to the town and visiting pachyderms were taken for a stroll on the beach, with the predictable resultant deposits. Circus organizers were irate at the time the ban was introduced, claiming that the public were being prevented from getting a closer look at the animals, and that the beach had been polluted anyway by more offensive chemical emissions.
The national animal symbol of France is the rooster.
The French own the most pets of any country in Europe, with 36.4 million goldfish, 10.7 million cats, and 7.8 million dogs. Twenty-five percent of French households own a dog and 27 percent own a cat.
The most popular breed of dog in France is not the French bulldog — as one might expect — but the German shepherd.
In the course of divorce hearings in France, the custody of pets is a frequent cause of dispute. French law does not allow shared custody of pets or the alternating of weekends, and judges have traditionally taken a dim view of having to arbitrate over the future of furry and feathered friends. So much so that, when a judge in Rouen was asked to rule on who would have custody of the couple's dog, he replied curtly that he was not prepared to do so, given that the "dog was perfectly capable of deciding the issue for itself."
Being historically a farming country, France still has a lot of rules on the books relating to farm animals. For example, the law states that if your chickens run into your neighbor's coop and lay their eggs there, they belong to the owner of the land and you have no right to the eggs — that is, unless the credulous fowl have been lured over the boundary by "fraud or artifice."
There is a confirmed population of wild kangaroos living near the village of Emance in the forest of Rambouillet, west of Paris. Apparently, the gray marsupials escaped an animal park in the 1970s, and their descendants are now bounding happily along the forest paths in the wild. The feral kangaroos are so much a part of the local scene that there are signs signaling their presence, and the magazine of the school in Emance is called The Joking Kangaroo.
The Great Cat Massacre is the name given to a bizarre incident that occurred in Paris during the 1730s. A group of apprentices at a printing press on rue Saint-Séverin resented the fact that their master and mistress treated their cats better than the apprentices themselves. The cats were spoiled and pampered, while the apprentices were beaten, mistreated, exposed to freezing weather, and fed scraps from the table, which even the cats wouldn't eat. In order to exact revenge, therefore, one of the apprentices mimicked the sound of a cat yowling through the night. The master and mistress, desperate to be rid of the noise, ordered the cats to be rounded up and killed. The apprentices caught the cats and beat them half to death; they then held a "mock trial," found the cats guilty of witchcraft, and sentenced them to death by hanging. Various explanations for this stunning case of animal cruelty have been put forth by historians, including the theory that the action by the apprentices represents an early example of worker revolt.
The first public zoo in Paris, the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, was created in 1794, during the time of the French Revolution. This resulted from the demands of the National Assembly that all privately owned exotic animals be donated to the menagerie or stuffed. During the time of the Paris commune, many of the animals were eaten by besieged Parisians. The Ménagerie is the second most ancient zoological park in the world.
The Zoo de Pessac near Bordeaux was once home to the only documented case of a jealous hippo. The founder of the zoo, Jean Ducuing, kept a pet hippo called Komir as the zoo's star attraction. Komir and Ducuing were more or less inseparable: they played together every day, and posters for the zoo showed Ducuing with his head in the hippo's enormous open mouth. The trouble started, however, when Ducuing got himself a new toy — a tractor — and started playing with that instead. After months of being ignored, Komir threw a fit. When Ducuing cycled past the hippo's enclosure one day and ignored him, he stampeded through the electric fence and charged at his neglectful master. Ducuing, of course, didn't stand a chance with four tons of jealous hippo on him. His widow took over the zoo, and questions as to what to do with Komir were tactfully settled when the hippo himself died from ingesting a rubber ball six months later. The circumstances were not regarded as suspicious.
The gracious façades of central Paris owe their existence to one Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809 — 1891), commonly known as Baron Haussmann. Haussmann was drafted by Emperor Napoleon III to completely reconstruct the city, with new parks, squares, and boulevards. A graduate of the famous Collège Henri IV and Lycée Condorcet of Paris, he set about laying out the outlines of the modern city as we know it: major stations to connect Paris to the rest of France (Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord), grand boulevards and sweeping squares, and large parks to the north, south, east, and west (the Bois de Boulogne, Bois de Vincennes, Parc des ButtesChaumont, and Parc Montsouris). Parisians, however, grew tired of the incessant building and rebuilding, and complained about the drain on the city's coffers. Eventually forced to resign by Napoleon, Baron Haussmann spent his last days focusing on his massive, three-volume Mémoires. He died quietly in Paris in 1891, at the age of 82.
The famous art nouveau entrances to the Métro stations of Paris are largely the creations of the eccentric French architect Hector Guimard (1867–1942). They have been described by one critic in these terms:
Constructed like the Crystal Palace out of interchangeable, prefabricated cast-iron and glass parts, Guimard created his métro system in opposition to the ruling taste of French classical culture ... Guimard's system flourished, emerging overnight like the manifestation of some organic force, its sinuous green cast-iron tentacles erupting from the subterranean labyrinth to support a variety of barriers, pergolas, maps, hooded light fittings and glazed canopies. These surrealistic "dragonfly's wings" — to quote a contemporary critic — received a mixed, not to say chauvinistic, press, the verdigris color of their iron supports being regarded as German rather than French.
Unfortunately, Guimard was never truly appreciated in his day. He emigrated to New York where he eventually died as a virtually forgotten figure. On his death, his widow even offered the hôtel particulier in which the couple had lived as a gift to the city of Paris, but was refused. Many of his creations have now, however, been reconstructed or restored — a belated recognition of this hugely important, if eccentric, architect.
The exquisite glass and cast-iron canopies extending above many hotel, Métro, and theater entrances in Paris and other French cities are called marquises. Appearing as an architectural feature at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the marquises signaled a relaxation of the rather austere aesthetic of Baron Haussmann. The word marquise was originally used to signify a tentlike structure outside an entrance to keep out the rain, and today's marquises combine practicality and grace with the same purpose in mind.CHAPTER 2
B Is for ...
There are more bakeries in Paris (1,784) than bars (1,124).
The French consume about 10 billion baguettes a year — that, is about 320 baguettes per second.
A true French baguette may contain only pure flour without additives, although water, yeast, and salt are allowed. Eggs, milk, and oil are never used. Baguettes must be baked in a stone furnace at a minimum of 482°F for 25 minutes.
For the past twenty years, the City of Paris has awarded a prize for the Best Baguette of the Year. In order to compete, entries must measure between 22 and 26 inches, weigh between 9 and 11 ounces, and contain 0.6 ounces of salt for every 2 pounds of flour. Baguettes entered into the competition are identified by number only, to guarantee anonymity. The criteria for assessment include texture, taste, and smell, scored on a scale of 0 to 4. The boulangerie that makes the winning baguette has the honor of supplying the president at the Élysée Palace for a year. The 2015 prix de la meilleure baguette de Paris went to the artisan boulanger Djibril Bodian, whose boulangerie, Le Grenier à Pain, nestles in the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur at 38, rue des Abbesses, in the picturesque district of Montmartre.
Steak frites (steak and fries) is a French bistro classic, voted in a recent poll of French people as the fifth most popular dish in France.
Historically, the traditional French cut of beef was the rumsteak (rump steak), although nowadays the entrecote (rib steak) is the more popular cut.
Steak can be asked for as bleu (virtually raw), saignant/ à point (medium-rare), or bien cuit (well-done — a cuisson that a native French person will never ask for, and which is reserved for Anglophone foreigners).
American and French beef cuts compared
American and French beef cuts can be compared as follows:
The main difference between American and French cuts is how certain areas are subdivided, with French butchery manifesting both a more complex division and the French willingness to eat more or less everything, including parts of the animal (tongue, cheeks, tail) that would be considered unsavory by the average American.
Tenderloin is filet de boeuf, and sirloin faux-filet. Other more exotic French cuts include paleron (a piece of shoulder used for braising), the pavé or filet de rumsteak, the onglet (tenderloin), and the bavette (skirt steak).
The beret, quintessentially French headgear, originated in the southwest of France, where it was worn by peasants and sold commercially from the seventeenth century onward.
The traditional French beret is made with half a mile of merino wool, and has a ring of leather inside to help it fit snugly on the head. It is waterproof, resistant to ultraviolet light, and keeps its shape even after being rolled.
These days, berets are rarely worn in French cities, and are seen mainly in rural areas. Only one traditional beret manufacturing firm remains in France.
The main market in the world for berets today is the military, with the French army, United Nations, and NATO still using the traditional cloth cap. The U.S. army stopped using cloth berets in 2011, replacing them with patrol caps.