Writing Portfolio



Along with 13 items of vintage French pottery, a wicker basket and two fish-plates, our recent visits to the flea-markets of Paris also resulted in a set of four cast-iron saucepans which Allison convinced me would be able to fit in our kitchen. Due to all of the wine we'd also bought, fitting them into our luggage was more of an issue but Allison managed to get them into her handbag for the Eurostar journey back home! 

Allison had also visited a shop called E. Dehillerin, a famous cookware-store in the 1st arrondissement. From there she had purchased a madeleine pan, which is one of those kitchen implements that only has one purpose - the making of madeleines. 

Madeleines are those small sponge-cakes with the distinctive shell-like shapes which come from their being baked in (what else?) madeleine pans. Now that we had one of those, we couldn't not have a go at making them, could we?

Our recipe was sourced from a book called My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz, an American food-writer who is based in Paris. Allison is a fan although I am not so keen, having been not much taken with a previous book of his, The Sweet Life in Paris (to be precise, he lost me when he mentioned using his bathtub for doing the washing-up; as this is mentioned early on in the book, I feel that I may not have given him a fair hearing).

But this wasn't washing-up; this was the baking of a batch of small sponge-cakes which consist of eight ingredients. How hard could it be?

First up, the eggs had to be at room temperature before they could be mixed in with the sugar; Lebovitz said to do this in a mixer on high speed for up to five minutes, and then stir in the flour, salt, baking powder and vanilla (he said to use vanilla bean paste rather than extract, but he does helpfully give a quantity for vanilla extract as he evidently realises that this is what most of his readers will have; nice touch). Once this is mixed in, the batter is covered and left to stand for an hour.

In the meantime, the butter is melted and mixed in with the honey - and what better saucepan to use than one of the set from the flea-market? 

This then needs to cool down to room temperature (this recipe is, it seems, a very room temperature recipe) before being mixed in with the batter, which is then covered and left to stand for an hour.

Baking: It really is all about hurrying up and waiting.

Then came the madeleine pan. We'd bought a non-stick one and it so happens that Lebovitz recommends these, although they do still need to be greased. In My Paris Kitchen, he states that he used to use softened butter to do this, having been advised to do so by "several prominent pastry chefs" before giving melted butter a go and finding that it worked better; melted butter is, therefore, what he says to use for this in his recipe. 

The batter was then scooped into the pan (Lebovitz also goes into detail about what to use to do the scooping; I just used a couple of regular spoons) and baked for ten minutes.

They came out perfectly, more or less...

Lebovitz states that: "Madeleines are best enjoyed warm, or the same day that they're made." They most certainly were, and I have a feeling that more may be made in the future. After all, we have the pan.


Parisian perspectives

I have stayed in Paris on several occasions, and during those times I have never had a room (or, for that matter, an apartment) with a view that includes the Eiffel Tower. Such things, I presumed, were reserved for characters in films and TV shows (and even they seem to make do with a picture most of the time). The closest I have ever come to an eyeful of the Eiffel without having to walk out of the door came when we went to Paris last year. Our apartment in the north-east of the city (the 11th arrondissement to be precise, right next to Belleville station) may not have had a view of the tower, but the window in the hallway mere yards from our front door did. We liked the place so much that we  stayed there again when we went back to Paris last week.

One thing I really like about staying in a Parisian apartment few floors up is the view of the rooftops of the adjoining apartment buildings.

There’s something uniquely Parisian about these buildings, just like there’s something very Parisian about the way the traffic behaved at the road-junction that sits above the Belleville Métro station. This junction, which I think I’m right in saying is the only place in Paris where the boundaries of four arrondisements meet, is chaotic at best and in true Parisian style many motorists resort to using their horns. This, combined with the distinctive sirens of French emergency service vehicles, is what Paris sounds like, especially on the fifth floor when you’ve got the windows open to let some air in.

Out in the hall, we got our view of Eiffel’s Tower during the day and when we came home at night, when it is lit up. As an extra bonus, we found that every hour in the hour the whole tower sparkles for five minutes! We couldn’t let this special Parisian moment pass without a glass of wine and some musical accompaniment from the iPhone; we settled on Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’.

But there’s more to viewing the Paris skyline than the Eiffel Tower, right? After all, the novelist Guy de Maupassant, one of the tower’s early critics, said that he liked to dine at the restaurant on the second level of the Tower because it was the only place in Paris from which he couldn’t see it. The original plan was that it would be demolished in 1909, twenty years after it was constructed, and it was only spared because it turned out to be an ideal platform for radio antennas.

Admittedly, M. de Maupassant made his claim about his dining habits on the grounds that he hated the thing (as did a lot of snooty Parisians when it was first built; the ‘metal asparagus’ was one of its nicer early nicknames), and over my past couple of visits to Paris I’ve been checking out various viewing-pointss of the city. Is there more to it than the Eiffel Tower? It certainly seems to crop up in a lot of vistas from ground level – although it’s not the only building to do that; from the eastbound platform of the Métro station at La Chapelle (connected to the Gare du Nord via a foot tunnel, although you have to know where you’re going as the signposting isn’t the best), you can see the basilica of Sacré-Cœur.

Last year, I indulged in my love of climbing towers by going up the bell-tower at Notre-Dame Cathedral. I was rewarded with a close-up of the famous gargoyles (although to be accurate they are in fact chimeras, as strictly speaking gargoyles are the ones that are intended to be used as water-spouts) which have a permanent view over the city.

And what a view! From Notre Dame, the view is uninterrupted. One thing that’s very interesting about Paris (and which makes it distinct from London) is that the main financial district is out of town, over at La Défense at the end of the axe historique. This means that there are hardly any modern high-rise towers within the city itself, the obvious exception being the one at Montparnasse, although it’s worth noting that two years after this was built, the civic authorities passed a law banning the building of towers more than seven stories tall in the city centre.

For Paris, the happy result is that the views over the city are, by and large, unobstructed. The Arc de Triomphe and Montmartre (dominated by Sacré-Cœur) and a certain iron lattice tower can all be seen from the top of Notre Dame – as could the queue of tourists waiting to enter the cathedral (top tip: get there early; same goes for the bell tower).

But what about a panoramic view of Paris without having to climb a tower? Well, there’s always Montmartre. When we went there a few years ago, we rode up the funiculaire to the top of the hill and looked out over the city from in front of the basilica, but the view seemed somewhat restricted, and I don’t just mean by all of the other tourists and the souvenir-sellers offering plastic models of the Eiffel Tower. As you look out from Montmartre, there is a thought in the back of your head that the view from the top of the basilica behind you will be better.

Having climbed up the spiralling staircase, I can confirm that it is. All of Paris is laid out before you from the Sacré-Cœur; you can, apparently, see for almost 20 miles on a clear day.

There is, though, a spectacular panoramic view of Paris away from the tourists. For this, we need to go back to Belleville. Out in the 20th is another Parisian hill which has the Parc de Belleville on its western slope. This is the highest park in the city, and what with it being located in the 20th it is more than a bit seedy – although some would say that that makes it authentic as it must be one of the parts of the city least frequented by tourists. They’re the ones who are missing out, though, as at the park’s summit is a building called the Maison de l’Air, a small museum dedicated to the importance of fresh air, and on top of that is a viewing-platform. There, minus the tourists, is the best view of Paris.


'Through Paris lay my readiest path...'

When in Paris, there are a couple of places that I try to visit whenever I'm there. Or perhaps that should be 'here', as I am writing this while sipping from a glass of wine in an apartment in the 11th arrondissement.

The wine element is important here as it was purchased in our favourite Parisian wine bar, Le Baron Rouge which can be found close to the Marche d'Aligre, just south of the Rue de Faubourg Sainte-Antoine in the 12th. Aligre is a must-visit market whenever Allison and I go to Paris, and after browsing the flea-market and buying food which we will cook later, we make our way to Le Baron Rouge for a glass or two of wine.

Le Baron is truly our favourite wine-bar in Paris. It's packed with good quality wines that can be had by the glass for (usually) 3 or 4 euros a pop, and these include a few that you'd have to work hard to find in London, but it's a decidedly working-class bar (a lot of the market traders like to frequent it after a day's work) in which the pretensions that can be associated with wine-tasting are left outside.

As well as great wine, you can get platters of cheese and charcuterie (and, on Saturdays, oysters) so it's good for lunch. You can even buy wine to take away - and not just by the bottle, but by the litre (or even the five-litre plastic carton) which is drawn straight from the barrel.

Later in the day, I went to the Left Bank - specifically, the Rue de la Bucherie (within sight of Notre Dame) - to visit one of my favourite shops, Shakespeare & Company. This is a true Paris institution, an English-language bookshop that is actually three places in one - a bookshop, a second-hand bookshop (not usually located within the same establishment) and a reference library!

The place was opened in the Fifties although the founder, a visionary of sorts called George Whitman, did not originally call it Shakespeare & Company, choosing later to name it after a bookshop of that name that had existed at a different location on the Left Bank between the Wars (patrons then had included Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce).

I try and visit Shakespeare & Company every time I'm in Paris, As I usually do, I browsed the second-hand stalls outside and had a look inside (where all the new books are) before going upstairs to the reference section which doubles a sleeping-area for writers who earn their board by working on the counter during the daylight hours.

Up there, there's a piano - someone was having a go on that, and a good job she was doing - and in the front room part of the tan leather armchair was occupied by a white cat having a snooze; I presumed that this was the same cat who had been responsible for tearing up part of said leather armchair. Elsewhere in the room was a window-facing desk bearing a typewriter (anyone can have a go, apparently) and at any given time at least two would-be writers can be seen jotting something down in a notebook that is either Moleskine or a close imitation of that brand.

You can just choose a book - any book - and sit and read. I browsed, obviously; after discounting old favourites like Boswell's Life of Johnson and Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean (on the grounds that I own those, back home), I picked up a 1930s edition of Wordsworth's The  Prelude, and on flicking though it I came across the bit (in Book IX) describing  a visit he made to Paris:

Through Paris lay my readiest path, and there
I sojourn'd a few days, and visited
In haste each spot of old and recent fame
The latter chiefly...

Wordsworth was in Paris in the early 1790s, so he took in not just the sights - then as now, 'Mont Martyr' was evidently a must-visit - but also the places where key events of the French Revolution had taken place; he even describes going to the site of the Bastille - right next to what he called 'the suburbs of St. Anthony' (ie. the Rue du Faubourg Sainte-Antoine), which is of course not far from a certain present-day wine bar of my acquaintance...

And from the rubbish gather'd up a stone
And pocketed the relick...

Very interesting. In c. 1792, William Wordsworth was picking up a piece of the Bastille to take home. For me, the parallel between that and tourists visiting Berlin two hundred years later and taking a piece of the Wall as a souvenir was very striking.

Thus enlightened, I made my way back to 'our' apartment. Where I had some wine - purchased from (where else?) Le Baron Rouge.    


The history of the world, according to drinks

Last September in Toronto, I was browsing in a bookshop (as you do) when I noticed a book called A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Looking at the blurb on the back, I learned that this was world history with a twist - the twist being that this book was the history of the world looked at through six beverages that have had a powerful influence on human history. I'd never heard of the author, who I presumed to be either Canadian or American. The book's premise sounded good, so I bought it.

I'd paid $21 for it; only later, when I read all of the blurb on the back, did I realise that the author, Tom Standage, is British (as well as several books, he has written for the Grauniad and the Torygraph). The book that I'd bought is published in Britain with a regular retail price of £9:99, and I didn't need to check the exchange rate to realise that by buying it in Canada I'd paid a little bit more for it! 

Now I like the idea of history as seen via a specific item or set of items - somewhere in my book collection is a book about how cod changed the world, while the usually superb 'last word' section of The Week had an extract last week from a new book about how humanity has come to be heavily dependent on chicken. There are also books out there about how condiments like salt and sugar have changed the world.

Standage has chosen six drinks that between them tell the story of human history, from the Stone Age to the present day. The drinks are three alcoholic beverages and three caffeinated ones: Beer, wine, spirits (a rather vague term, but bear with him), coffee, tea and Coca-Cola (now we're into specifics), with two chapters on each. It's a brilliant read.

Beer, I learned, dates back to c.10,000 BC and was discovered in the area known as the Fertile Crescent - that part of the world (Egypt, up the Mediterranean coast to southern Turkey and across the Euphrates and the Tigris to the border between Iraq and Iran) where people first took up farming and established large-scale settlements. A crucial discovery at that time was that gruel made with malted grain (itself caused by the near-impossibility of storing grain in watertight storage pits) would, if left sitting around for a couple of days, ferment. Beer came to be a highly important beverage in ancient civilisations, and from the start the emphasis was on socialising - since its origins, beer has always been a social drink (although the ancient practice of people drinking it with straws out of a large pottery jar has fallen by the wayside) as well as being seen as a gift from the gods and as such used a lot in religious rituals - in Ancient Egypt, the story of a mix of water and fermented grain being left out in the sun was attributed to Osiris, who among other things was responsible for agriculture. The Ancient Egyptians were buried with, among other thing, beer (sieves for beer-making were found in Tutankhamen's tomb). It also contributed to the origins of writing; some of the earliest written documents are Sumerian wage lists and tax receipts on which the symbol for beer is one of the most common words.

The origins of wine are also lost in pre-history although it is said to have originated from the Zagros mountains (located in modern-day Armenia and northern Iran), where wild vines grew; Mount Ararat is nearby, so the Biblical story of Noah planting the first vineyard after the flood (and getting drunk on the results) does reflect wine's origins in this part of the world. Wine, though, came into its own in Ancient Greece where it was first produced on a large commercial scale and played a key role in the development of Western civilisation. The Greeks drank it mixed with water (only Dionysius, the god of wine - renamed Bacchus by the Romans - could drink it neat), and the symposia, where rational enquiry was pursued via adversarial discussion (the results, among other things, being the concept of democracy), were wine-fuelled. To the Romans, wine production was a sign of civilisation and in this respect it's worth noting that they planted vines wherever they went, which was how wine came to be first produced in Britain. It also became tied up with the origins of Christianity - Jesus's first miracle was turning water into wine, and wine was served at the Last Supper which in turn led to its central role in the Eucharist. Linked to this is a reaction against wine that came with the rise of Islam.

Ironically, it was in Arab-controlled Spain that wine started to be distilled, which brings our story to spirits (indeed, the word 'alcohol' is of Arabic origin). Originally used for medicinal purposes (hence why it was known as aqua vitae - water of life - which was translated into uisge beatha in Gaelic - the origin of the word 'whisky'). Distilled booze came into prominence during the Age of Exploration as spirits, being more compact than beer and wine, could be better transported on ships and so was used as a trading good, the taxation and control of which would have big implications on the course of history. The rise of sugar plantations in the West Indies led to the making of rum from the otherwise useless by-product that was molasses; it was given to newly-arrived slaves to subdue them and was adopted by the Royal Navy. Admiral Vernon hit upon the idea of diluting the daily rum ration with water and mixing it with sugar and lime juice - a primitive cocktail which became known as grog and led reduced instances of scurvy among sailors so dramatically that it allowed the Royal Navy to become the most dominant maritime force of the 18th and 19th centuries (and, incidentally, led to British sailors being nicknamed 'limeys'). Rum was also produced in the American Colonies, as importing molasses from the West Indies was cheaper than importing brandy and wine from Europe, and grain and vine production was sufficiently problematic to limit beer and wine production. The colonists mostly used molasses from the French islands (there was more of that), and the British government's attempts to force the colonists to import it from the British islands led to higher taxation of the French product, resulting in increased smuggling and also increased resentment against British rule.

At around the same time, another drink with origins in the Muslim world took Europe by storm. From the unknown Ethiopian goatherd who noticed the effect of the berries of a particular plant on his goats and reported this to his imam (or possibly the man from Mocha who claimed to have been guided to a coffee-plant in a vision), coffee became the social drink of choice in a civilisation where alcohol was banned, and in the seventeenth century it spread to Europe. Pope Clement VIII is said to have insisted on tasting it before approving it (appropriately, therefore, the first European to approve of coffee was Italian), and by the 1660s coffee-houses were big in London; despite attempts to suppress them, they were a hit and led to innovations such as the penny post (started because so many people used coffee-houses as a mailing address) and the publication of Newton's Principia - which resulted from a heated coffee-house discussion between Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren in 1684, the content of which was retold by Edmond Halley to Isaac Newton a couple of months later. As well as scientific advancement, the London coffee-houses also fuelled the world of finance; Lloyd's of London, one of the world's leading insurance markets, started out in a coffee-house, and Jonathan's Coffee House on Exchange, where stockbrokers met, became the Stock Exchange. Coffee made it out to the Americas thanks largely to a French naval officer called Gabriel de Clieu who unofficially took a cutting from the only coffee-plant in Paris (owned by Louis XIV) to the West Indies; he planted it at Martinique, and descendants of this plant later flourished throughout the region. Back in France, coffee powered the Enlightenment, coffee-houses being the meeting-place of choice for Parisian intellectuals; Voltaire, Rousseau and \Diderot were regulars at the Cafe Procope, which was also frequented by Benjamin Franklin. They became centres of revolutionary thought, and on 12th June 1789, Camile Desmoulins gave a speech outside the Cafe de Foy which led to the Storming of the Bastile two days later; the French Revolution had, quite literally, began in a coffee-house.

Tea, meanwhile, originated in China in or around c.2700 BC (the Emperor Shen Nung is credited with having been the first person to brew-up) and came to Europe during the Age of Exploration. It was introduced to England by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II. He evidently preferred the company of several mistresses, but his wife had brought as part of her dowry a chest of tea (it was also as a result of this dowry that Bombay became an English possession). She loved the stuff, which quickly became fashionable among the upper classes as a result. By the end of the 1660s, the East India Company was importing tea from the Far East. Tea would remain a luxury item until well into the 18th century, but as it became more plentiful it became a hit with the rest of the population (in time, this would lead the British to develop tea plantations in India as a means of maintaining supply). When the Industrial Revolution started, mill-owners looking to increase productivity hit upon the idea of ensuring that the workers could have access to a drink that wasn't alcoholic and could fend off hunger during long shifts; thus was that great British institution known as the tea-break created. Over in America, resentment at both a tax on tea and the East India Company's monopoly on the tea trade led to increased smuggling, and when the British government slashed the tea tax a group of Boston smugglers (fearing for their livelihood) dressed up as Mohawks, forcibly boarded three of the Company's tea-carrying ships and emptied their contents into the harbour. Similar 'tea parties' followed; this led to the Coercive Acts which only served to enrage the colonists further, prompting the American Revolution. 

The last of the six drinks is, appropriately for the 20th century, more of a brand than a drink. Invented in Atlanta in 1886 by a maker of patent remedies (ie. quack medicines - hugely popular in the US in the late 19th century) called Joseph Pemberton, Coca-Cola started out as a wine infused with coca leaves and kola nut extract; a non-alcoholic version was developed after the sale of alcohol was banned in Atlanta due to pressure from that singularly intemperate movement that was called temperance. Originally sold as a syrup to soda-fountain owners, it was first bottled in 1899 - following which, sales exploded as it could now be sold just about anywhere, and following a legal case in 1911 it was allowed to be sold to children - thus bringing caffeine to a group of people who previously hadn't drank tea and coffee. Father Christmas first appeared drinking the stuff in 1931 (although, contrary to what I'd previously thought, images of him wearing red pre-date this), and ity unexpectedly did well out of the ending of Prohibition by being promoted as a mixer. Then came the Second World War, during which wherever the GIs went, Coca-Cola went too. General Eisenhower was particular keen that this taste of home should be accessible to his soldiers, and bottling plants were set up at all American bases. By the end of the war, Coca-Cola had established itself on every continent. Even General Zhukov, the Soviet Union's greatest general, got the taste for it after he met with Eisenhower, although he had to have it a colourless version specially made for him so Stalin wouldn't find out. The cola wars followed (rivals Pepsi got a foot behind the Iron Curtain which Coca-Cola never managed, although this helped them to benefit from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and when Coca-Cola went into Israel to avoid a boycott by the Jewish community in the States, the Arab world went for Pepsi), and today Coca-Cola is not only one of the most recognised brand in the world, but it is apparently the second most commonly understood phrase in the world, after 'OK'.

Standage ends his superb book with an epilogue in which he looks to the future, and finds it in a drink that has defined human development but has at times seldom been drank in its pure form due to the fact that it has, for most of human history, been contaminated; water. Bottled water is the new big thing in the Western world, and in the developing world access to water remains a matter of life and death. It, more than anything else, is seen as the most likely source for future conflict in the Middle East (having previously been a crucial but largely overlooked factor in the Six Day War), while it is also seen as a potential source of conflict among the ex-Soviet states in Central Asia. But it can also promote co-operation, as seen by the agreements on the management of the Indus (India and Pakistan) and Mekong (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam) rivers. 

This, in short, is a superb book that I cannot recommend highly enough. I'm not sure if I will ever look at certain drinks in the same way again.