Sunday, November 25, 2007

Francophilia

There are times when one steps back and realizes that contemporaneous conjunctions from disparate sources make for a golden time in one's life. At this moment I am stripping out an ornate and beautiful French style Fantasy Lighting chandelier for their website and listening to the current, gorgeous, melancholy, Radiohead album. John Richardson's long awaited vivid third episode of his Picasso biography rests on a table nearby, where inside its covers the period lives vividly once again. And what with Ratatouille and the very charming Paris Je t'Aime to watch repeatedly on DVD I have once again turned sweet and nostalgic for France.

Internet radio is one of the best things to happen in my time and I often listen on Itunes to Artistes Disparus de la Chansons Francophone the station from chanteurs.org while I work. Broadcast from Paris, they play music by artists from the advent of audio recordings to the present day with the proviso that the artists must be either defunct or deceased. It's fabulous to cook along to and takes me on a wander down fresh Gallic paths.

I am very thankful for my life and the world around me. I feel very blessed no matter what comes my way. I know many people carry heavy burdens and suffer indignities, pains, and poverty, undeserved and incessant, and it was with shock that I read this news on the sale of a huge truffle at an obscene price of close to $350,000. While all proceeds of the auction were given to charity there are questions. No doubt the winning bidders will add value to the truffle as they carve it up and parlay that price many times by offering it in thousand dollar meals for those who will pay for a chance to be part of this sensation. A little bit of truffle goes a long way. I love fresh truffles and once in a blue moon to taste one is a great sensual luxury, with or without a price tag. Its flavor is not commodifiable (see this post). I have to ask, how many in need could be fed with an outright monetary gift such as this let alone its multiplied value when it gets to the table? How could the cure for AIDS or diabetes or cancer be sped on by such amounts? How many could be housed or saved from the streets with the wise stewardship of such a gift? When there are so many triumphs in the world this is something of a disappointment. A freely given gift from the earth stamped with a bland and outrageous price tag.

I would like to thank my friend Denny, who, as Winfernal, posts his ever eloquent and illuminating comments. Also, I appreciate the kind comments from Sean and from James. By the way my ribs are much better thank you - never thought I would take up knitting!

Good hearts can help save the world. Let's eat, my place, or in Gascony!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cannery Row

Despite some really tough pain, I am in Monterey, California. All I have to do is sit still and go slow, and, although walks on the gorgeous, uneven, kelp and jelly littered, spongy, sand beach, are out of the question, sitting upright and chauffeured in a fancy car's orthopedic seat is the perfect corset (albeit straight jacket). The ever changing, majestic California scenery entertains with its shifting light, plentiful vineyards and pastures, its grand and mesmerizing vistas. Probably shouldn't have gone on a road trip so soon after my mishap but, hey, the company is great, it's Steinbeck country, and I really needed a medicinal change of scenery. Besides, I am a fan of canned sardines and this trip is unlikely to happen again soon and has been on the roster for months.

Today, Sunday, is our last day on the Monterey Peninsula. I was born and brought up by the sea and it always resonates in a special way for me. We came up to accompany friend Marissa on the six hour drive from LA and to escort her to a benefit for the Center For Photographic Arts, in Carmel which was held at the rather grand Lodge at Pebble Beach. The canap├ęs were just fine and the banquet food was good, a customary goat cheese stuffed, herbed, frenchified chicken breast accompanied by peeled asparagus and, a "that ain't no risotto baby so next time call it rice". The wines were local and delicious and plenty of decorative gazillionaires were on hand. Speeches were thankfully borderline boring for the most part. We have had perfect weather all weekend, clear, sunny and cool. That evening, looking out over the links onto the secluded bay, and a short walk along the rugged coast alongside the eighteenth hole provided extra magic. So this is how the other eighth lives.

Personally I prefer grit to gloss, and yesterday we picked up a copy of Cannery Row, in the old Hovden Cannery, one of the preserved and converted structures that house Monterey Bay Aquarium. Published by John Steinbeck in 1946, Cannery Row is a feast of rich prose. I like the conceit of having purchased a book in the very place that is its subject. If you had asked Steinbeck to project back in '46 what was likely to be the future of Ocean View Avenue (renamed for its nickname - Cannery Row), I wonder if he could have foreseen Knut Hovden's Cannery housing anything but still more sardines and an even fouler smell than existed then. The Aquarium is truly incredible. Even if one were to see only the Sunfishes, slipping like huge masks from a Greek tragedy under and over grotesque Hammerheads and Great White in the enormous new million-gallon, seamlessly windowed tank, or watch the Otters writhe, twist and sunbathe in another wing, or reflect on the only living artificial kelp forest complete with tidal pull, one would walk away purified and enriched. I must confess that yellowtails swimming and anchovies schooling put sashimi in mind on more than one occasion during the visit.

Cannery Row currently bears scant resemblance to the vital and vivid industrial fishing port that once occupied this part of the wharf. Now with the usual neat restaurants and smart lodgings that genericize so many great historic American locations, it is hard to conjure Steinbeck's inventions outside his own poetic wordplay. But The Bay, which is the site of one of the world's deepest underwater canyons, and its hugging peninsula, is still very beautiful despite the heavy tourist population which began its encroachment in the 1860's. The Monterey Sardine industry destroyed itself in the mid fifties from over fishing, and The Bay is now a conservancy. Here is a very good potted visual history.

The closer you get to San Francisco the better the cooking gets and here you are but an hour or two away. Very good breakfast in Carmel, at The Cottage, this morning with shopping at the Plaza and Wilkes Bashford (my pocketbook unscathed), but apart from our pleasant waterfront domicile, The Best Western Beach Resort, at Monterey adjacent Seaside, and The Great Pacific crashing just beyond the room's patio to lullaby me to sleep each night, a great memory will be Friday night's dinner at Monterey's Fish House providing a good take on Bouillabaisse, which I chose over their Cioppino. Subtly flavored with saffron and just about every fish or crustacean on the menu I prequelled it with six surprisingly huge Hama-Hama Oysters on the half shell from Washington State. I prefer smaller oysters both texturally and for their subtler, sweeter flavor but these did not disappoint. All our food was nicely cooked and the lack of pretension, coupled with the spartan dining room made it the perfect no nonsense venue to ease us out of the SoCal lag and bL.A.h we brought with us. The staff were all stressed out but completely pleasant and we had a great evening. Here is yelp's review and here is the general Google key.

This Monday morning, back in Los Angeles to gray skies and chilly weather, I realize I could have used another day there in Monterey, prostrate, dozing to the blue Pacific's rhythm and wave crash, reading Steinbeck's richly poetic novel in place.