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Chestnuts, a French Wintertime and Festive Season Essential

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Photo: Fabienne Félix / Flickr

Of the French food items most linked to late autumn and winter, chestnuts feature prominently. The soothing smell of roasted chestnuts wafts through the air of holiday markets, the chic golden wrappers of marrons glacés glimmer in shop windows of elegant epiceries and holiday poultry stuffing is made tantalizing by the tender pieces of chataignes. Read on as we delve into the origins and uses of this versatile tree nut.

Chataignier chestnut tree. Photo: Yoann Sevestre / CC

Marron or Chataigne?

There are two words for chestnut in French, marron and chataigne. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to the nut of two different species of trees, châtaignier (sweet chestnut) and marronnier (horse chestnut), the latter whose nut is not edible. Marronniers are found throughout the country and populate many Parisian parks, however, châtaigniers grow best in the south of France.

Photo: S@ndrine / Flickr

Origins in the South of France

The Cevennes mountains and its Ardèche department are particularly renowned for its excellent chestnuts. Its inhabitants have been collecting and eating chestnuts since as far back as the 10th century and have been drying the hearty nuts to make flour since the 13th century. 

Chestnuts were less available outside of the south until the arrival of train transportation in the 19th century, which allowed for regional goods, like the chestnuts of Ardèche, to reach different areas of the country. Although their popularity began waning into the 20th century with the rise of modern, mass market snacks, France is an advocate of its culinary heritage and today chestnuts are consumed in a number of ways, especially over the end of year holidays. 

Marrons Glacés. Photo: Kate Hopkins / CC

The Royal Marron Glacé

Of these various methods of preparation, marrons glacés, chestnuts candied by being cooked in sugar, have a particularly interesting history. The exact origins of this treat are unknown, however, candied chestnuts were first recorded in the 16th century in Coni, a city in the Italian of Piedmont, a mountainous region known for its nut trees.  At the time, it was under the control of the House of Savoy and a chef of Duke Charles Emmanuel I first prepared this sweet delicacy for his court.

It is not surprising that the first time marron glacé were recorded in France was during the reign of the gourmand King Louis XIV (read our Surprising Story article about dining a Versailles here). Prepared by chef François Pierre de La Varenne, author of the seminal French cookbook, Le Cuisinier françois, the sugary delights appealed to the Sun King’s sweet tooth and were then served at Versailles.

However, it was back in Ardèche in 1882 that marrons glacés were first mass produced. This was by a young entrepreneur Clément Faugier, who, three years later, ingeniously repurposed the broken pieces of nuts for crème de marrons, chestnut spread.

Candied Chestnuts from A la Mère de Famille

A Holiday Meal Essential

If you’re visiting France over the holidays, you’ll likely spot marrons or chataignes in various places on holiday menus. They can find their way into all courses, crushed atop pumpkin soup, in the stuffing of turkey or pheasant and in desserts such as ice cream or bûche de Noël, then candied chestnuts are often included with post meal coffee and chocolates.

If you’d like to purchase candied chestnuts in Paris, most high quality chocolate and confectionary shops sell them, like A la Mère de Famille, Patrick Roger and Fauchon. For other chestnut products and delicacies, visit the speciality shop L’Ardèche à Paris, found in the Marais. 

We can create a custom food tour focused on French holiday treats, which can also include French chestnuts. Contact us here for further details.

Looking for further autumn or winter French food inspiration? Check out these other articles on our site:

Wild Mushrooms, an Autumnal Passion in France

Les Potirons, France’s History and Love of Pumpkins

Foie Gras, France’s Favorite Holiday Delicacy

Autumn 2023: a Season of 18th Century Exhibits

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The autumn is often the season when most of Paris’s best exhibits are held. Besides the exhibit on Van Gogh at Auvers taking place at the Musée d’Orsay (which we cover in this article), many of the other most noteworthy exhibits taking place this autumn and winter in Paris revolve around the 18th century.

The Garden at Bourgival, 1884, Berthe Morisot, Musée Marmottan Monet

Berthe Morisot & The Art of the 18th Century, Musée Marmottan Monet

This exhibit explores the influence artists of the 18th century, including Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, had on leading Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot. This wonderful lesser visited museum is well worth visiting for its impressive collections, including the largest collection of Monets in the world, the perfect complement to a tour of the exhibit. On from 18 October 2023 to 3 March 2024, learn more at this link.

L’Embarquement pour Cythere, 1717, Antoine Watteau, Musée du Louvre

The Regency in Paris, Musée Carnavalet

The Museum of the History of Paris will be focusing on the Regency, a lesser-known period of French history between Louis XIV’s death in 1715 to the beginning of Louis XV’s rule in 1723, when France was governed by the Sun King’s nephew, the Duke Philippe d’Orléans. On from 20 October 2023 to 25 February 2024, more information here.

Scene of Comedie dell’Arte Italienne, Claude Gillot, Musée du Louvre

Claude Gillot, Musée du Louvre

This exhibit traces the work of renowned draughtsman and printmaker in the last years of the Grand Siècle. Known for the inventiveness and originality, his works heralded the freedom of expression and customs of the Régence period (1715–1723). On from 9 November 2023 to 26 February 2024, further details here.

Portrait of Madame la Présidente de Rieux, 1742, Georges De La Tour, Musée Cognacq-Jay

Pastels, Between Line and Color, Musée Cognacq Jay

This exhibit explores pastels during the Age of Enlightenment, and features works by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, the “prince of pastelists” as well as Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, François Boucher and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. On from 12 October 2023 to 11 February 2024, read more on this exhibit at this link.

Enjoy an in-depth experience of these exhibits by arranging a guided tour led by an art historian and expert of the 18th century. Contact us for further details and booking.

Vincent Van Gogh and Flowers 

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Marguerite Gachet in the Garden, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, Musée d’Orsay

This autumn the Musée d’Orsay will host a much anticipated exhibit, Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, exploring the Dutch artist’s final months that were spent in this village located north of Paris. Vincent stayed for a mere 70 days, ending his life on July 29, 1890, yet this was a period of intense creativity, in which he produced 74 paintings (at least one a day!) and over 50 drawings, many of which will be on display at exhibition. The exhibit provides an excellent opportunity to explore one of Van Gogh’s favorite and best-known subject matters–flowers.

Throughout his career Vincent depicted flowers, attracted to the colors and textures of the petals. In his letters, Vincent wrote that he painted flowers because he could not afford to paint after models: “I have lacked money for paying models, else I had entirely given myself to figure painting, but I have made a series of color studies in painting simply flowers, red poppies, blue cornflowers and myosotys. White and rose roses, yellow chrysanthemums.” While surely attracted to the color of specific flowers, by making flowers his subject, Vincent endowed his paintings with a force and dynamism that have become icons of modern art. 

Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh

Sunflowers, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh, National Gallery

Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers are among his most famous. Vincent painted five different versions of sunflowers in a vase from 1888 to 1889. Sunflowers are heliotropic; they follow the sun, and have been symbols of enlightenment in western art for millennia. In Greek mythology, Apollo turned the spurned nymph Clytie into a sunflower.  The fact that the flowers follow the sun, symbolized devotion. Whether or not Van Gogh knew these stories, he certainly appreciated the vibrant yellow flowers he would have observed during his time in southern France. To depict them, he concentrated on using three shades of yellow, demonstrating the nuances of a single color. Certainly, Van Gogh’s attention to brushstrokes and the form of the petals make these paintings masterworks and give the flowers an emotional charge that we appreciate today. 

Irises, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh, J. Paul Getty Museum

Van Gogh was also attracted to the irises. While in the asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, he painted the iris flowers planted in the gardens of the asylum. Irises, which grow from bulbs or rhizomes, were especially appreciated by Vincent for their color and form. In Greek mythology, Iris was a messenger who was personified as a rainbow, perhaps why the center of our eyes are called the iris today. In Renaissance art, the iris was considered the flower of the Virgin, Van Gogh may have been aware of the the spiritual and chromatic association of irises,  but in his painting, he transformed the iris into a moving vibrant form, clearly relishing in the color contrast between blues and greens. 

Dr Gachet, 1887, Vincent Van Gogh, Musée d'Orsay

Le Docteur Gachet, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, Musée d’Orsay

In spring 1889, Vincent’s brother Theo, concerned about Vincent’s mental health following his release from the asylum in Saint Remy, solicited Dr. Paul Gachet, a physician and artist, to care for Vincent in his hometown of Auvers-sur-Oise. Gachet agreed, and Vincent arrived on May 20, 1890. 

Displayed in the exhibit is one of Van Gogh’s portraits of Dr. Gachet from the Orsay’s collection, a work that reveals Vincent’s compassion for his friend. Within the portrait, on the table in front of Gachet’s hand,is a foxglove, or digitalis. This is another representation of his lifelong interest in flowers, and may have been a homage to Gachet’s medical proficiency as it was a well known herbal remedy in the 1890s.

Blossoming Chestnut Branches, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection

While in Auvers, Van Gogh was attracted to the flowers in the landscape, and his blossoming chestnut flowers were probably painted after chestnut trees during his stay. It seems Vincent painted his canvases quickly, in order to capture the blooms before they withered. Here the swirling emphatic blue strokes in the sky are similar to his rendering of night skies and the format recalls his interest in Japanese prints. 

Certainly Vincent appreciated flowers as much as landscape: referring to the last large paintings of his period in Auvers he wrote: “They depict vast, distended wheat fields under angry skies, and I deliberately tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness in them.” But these pictures also had a positive side: “I am almost certain that these canvases illustrate what I cannot express in words, that is, how healthy and reassuring I find the countryside.” We can imagine that flowers provided both solace and beauty and perhaps optimism as he explored the variety of colors, shapes, and petals. 

Van Gogh in Auvers at the Musée d’Orsay, the Final Months appears from 3 October 2023 until 4 February 2024. We are conducting guided tours of the Van Gogh in Auvers exhibit which can also be combined with an excursion to visit the village of Auvers. Learn more about this, and our other Impressionist Garden tours, at this link.

Surprising Stories: Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries 1789-1793

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Siege of the Tulleries

October 16, 2023 will mark the 230th anniversary of Marie-Antoinette’s regicide at the age of 37. While the queen’s life story and tragic destiny have inspired novels and films, an exhibition at the National Archives–Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and the Revolution–focuses on a specific period, when the royal family was imprisoned in the Tuileries palace from 1789 until 1792. Have a sneak peak at this little known episode of royal history in the latest of our Surprising Stories series.

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How to Enjoy Paris in the Summer of 2023

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Image by Сергей from Pixabay

View from the Arc de Triomphe, by Сергей from Pixabay

Two years after Covid, Paris has maintained its spot as the number one tourist destination worldwide! The city continues to hold this acclaimed status for many reasons: its stellar number of museums, its thriving urban culture, boutique shopping, easy access to historic chateaux and gardens, and its storied (and constantly renewing) restaurant scene. The popularity of summer travel to the French capital means that when your dreams of Paris are confronted with the current reality, the throngs of tourists may dampen your enthusiasm. However, there are ways in which you can mitigate the crowds – and disappointment. These helpful hints will help you enjoy Paris, after you’ve been on one of our tours, which will allow you to discover the city on your own and like a local. 

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My New Book ‘Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy’ Wins Prestigious J.B Jackson Book Prize

Susan Taylor Leduc with Marie Antoinette's Legacy

Dr Susan Taylor Leduc with her award-winning book Marie Antoinette’s Legacy

I’m delighted to share the news that my new book, Marie Antoinette’s Legacy: The Politics of French Garden Patronage and Picturesque Design, 1775–1867, has won the prestigious John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize (2023).  This award acknowledges scholarly publications by landscape historians, historical geographers, urban historians, and art historians involved in landscape studies and the environmental humanities. Initiated by Elizabeth Barlow Rodgers and the Foundation for Landscape Studies (FLS) in 2007, it is among the 2023 Landscape Studies Initiative book awards now organized by the Center for Cultural Landscapes at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. For more information about the awards, please visit https://lnkd.in/ev_wWBbF

J.B. Jackson & the Landscape Studies Initiative books awards

John Brinckerhoff Jackson was a pioneering landscape historian, author, and teacher whose writing about America helped define the interpretations of vernacular landscapes. In the spring of 1951, he published the first issue of Landscape and served as the magazine’s publisher and editor until 1968. Jackson’s collected essays have been published in seven books, including  A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, which won the 1995 PEN prize for essays. As a scholar, Jackson greatly influenced the development of cultural landscape studies, a term that he popularized in America.  This year’s book awards jury included continuing members, Kenneth Helphand and Therese O’Malley, and newly added members, Elizabeth Meyers of the UVA CCL and former J.B. Jackson prize winner Jane Wolff.

About Marie Antoinette’s Legacy

Challenging the established historiography that frames the French picturesque garden movement as an international style, this book contends that the French picturesque gardens from 1775 until 1867 functioned as liminal zones at the epicenter of court patronage systems. Four French consorts—queen Marie-Antoinette and empresses Joséphine Bonaparte, Marie-Louise and Eugénie—constructed their gardens betwixt and between court ritual and personal agency, where they transgressed sociopolitical boundaries in order to perform gender and identity politics. Each patron endorsed embodied strolling, promoting an awareness of the sentient body in artfully contrived sensoria at the Petit Trianon and Malmaison, transforming these places into spaces of shared affectivity. The gardens became living legacies, where female agency, excluded from the garden history canon, created a forum for spatial politics. Beyond the garden gates, the spatial experience of the picturesque influenced the development of cultural fields dedicated to performances of subjectivity, including landscape design, cultural geography and the origination of landscape aesthetics in France.

Learn more about my book or purchase a copy here.

The History and Garden Inspirations of the Parisian Macaron

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Almost twenty-five years ago, baker, critic, and author Dorie Greenspan reported that when the French chef Pierre Hermé puts out new flavors for his macarons, “the news is announced in all the glossies and the lines outside his boutiques are so long you can finish a chunk of War and Peace before you reach the door. ” This is still true today, especially now that the French equivalent of a cookie—the macaron—has become so popular that it is found at even McDonald’s! For gourmet lovers, a macaron is a delight at any season, but this winter, Pierre Hermé launched a collection called Jardin Secret, something that garden lovers will also appreciate. Before introducing the 2023 vintages, let’s delve into the history of this exquisite treat.

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Nature Into Art: La Galerie Christian Dior

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Galerie Christian Dior Paris

Since the the opening  of the spectacular Galerie Christian Dior  in 2022, the museum has become one of the most visited cultural venues in the city. Located at 30 Avenue Montaigne, the very place where Christian Dior (1905-1958) founded his couture brand in 1947, the galley-museum celebrates the life and career of the legendary couturier.  The installations trace the gifted designer’s career, offering visitors the opportunity to see how nature influenced his designs, which we explore in this latest edition of our Nature into Art series.

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A Marie-Antoinette Inspired Holiday Gift Guide

For this holiday season, in celebration of the publication of my book, Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy, we’ve put together a list of fabulous gift ideas honoring France’s most famous queen. Marie-Antoinette was one of the first celebrities: her taste in gardens, porcelains, fashions, and decorative arts continues to inspire fashion designers, film makers and decorators.

 

My New Book: Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy

Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy, The Politics of French Garden Patronage and Picturesque Design, 1775-1867, is the ideal gift idea for those looking for a modern perspective on Marie-Antoinette. My book examines how Marie-Antoinette’s trendsetting garden design at the Petit Trianon, Versailles significantly changed French garden history. Despite the queen’s regicide during the French Revolution, her gardens survived. Inspired by the queen’s legacy, three empresses, Joséphine, Marie-Louise and Eugénie, forged their own garden projects at Versailles and Malmaison. Learn more about the book and acquire a copy here.

Gift Certificate: Exclusive Marie-Antoinette Tours

What’s better than reading about gardens? Visiting them! If someone you know is planning a trip to Paris in the coming year, then there is no better gift than one of my tours. One of my tours is entirely dedicated to the queen at Versailles, where we visit the Petit Trianon and the surrounding gardens.  At the Petit Trianon and Hameau, you will learn how the the gardens became one of most enchanting and misunderstood sites in French history.  Reach out to us here to purchase a gift certificate or arrange a custom tour.

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The Queen’s Chocolates – Debauve & Gallais

Established by the chocolatier and pharmacist of the Queen, this confectionery shop is one of the oldest in Paris. Among their selection of high-quality chocolates are Marie-Antoinette pistoles; thin, round chocolate tablets created by Sulpice Debauve for the Queen. The assortment box comes with pistoles of dark chocolate as well as ones of different flavors such as vanilla, ginger or earl gray. You can purchase them in their various boutiques in Paris or online here.

Marie-Antoinette plate

Versailles Replica Dessert Plate

For anyone who loves French pastries in addition to la Reine, consider purchasing one of these “mise en abyme” porcelain plates. The beautifully-crafted plates reproduce designs from the royal table art collections and are made in the prestigious French porcelain mecca of Limoges. This dessert plate represents les Animal Fabuleux, and is the perfect service dish for a refined Marie-Antoinette tea party. These plates are available on the Musées de France online boutique.

La Savonnerie Royale

For excellent French soaps and candles with a royal twist, peruse the offerings of La Savonnerie Royale. The Official Museum Supplier of le Chateau, this renowned company based in Provence, draws its inspiration from the Palace of Versailles, its history and gardens. Their Pétales d’Eglantine line, made of delicate rose fragrance with musk and woody notes, was created in honor of Marie-Antoinette, who adored roses.

Marie-Antoinette tea

Nina’s Marie Antoinette Tea

Originally specialized in distilling natural essential oils, Nina’s Paris has roots dating back to 1672. Nicknamed the “Magician of Fragrances,” its founder Pierre Diaz began supplying his fragrances to  the Royal Court of Versailles, including Marie-Antoinette favorite, rose. Today the company’s focus is on tea, including le Thé de Marie-Antoinette, the only tea in the world flavored with rose petals and fresh apples from the Royal Gardens of Versailles. To produce this, Nina’s Paris is the exclusive partner of Le Potager du Roi. If you can’t purchase via their website for international delivery, there are some options on Amazon.

Marie-Antoinette Tapestry Pouch

Your giftee can have Marie-Antoinette always with her thanks to this stylish pouch. Inspired by a detail from Marie-Antoinette’s head-board, the design features roses and lilies, tied with a garland of cornflowers. In 1786, when Marie-Antoinette decided to refresh the textiles of the summer furnishing of her royal bedroom and this beautiful design, created by Lyonnais embroiderer Jean-François Bony, was the result. The pattern is the only original element of this refurbishment which survived the Revolution. Purchase it through the Chateau de Versailles at this link.

Happy Holidays and we look forward to seeing you in 2023!

Surprising Stories: Empress Eugénie & Rosa Bonheur

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Rosa Bonheur’s Studio & Home

Today’s visitors to Paris associate the name Rosa Bonheur with the trendy guinguettes (causal bars) located at picturesque venues in the city. Less well known is the fact that Rosa Bonheur (1822-1889) was one of the most successful animal painters of the nineteenth century, whose career is currently being commemorated at a bicentenary exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay from October  2022 until January 2023. One of the most important moments of Rosa Bonheur’s lifetime occurred in June 1864, when Empress Eugénie made a surprise visit to the artist’s studio, and one year later awarded the painter with the Legion of Honneur. Rosa Bonheur became first female artist to receive such recognition: why did the Empress take such an interest in this non-urbane, eccentric, animal painter?  

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