Civilization and its Contents

I went to France, Holland and Belgium for a brief bucket list trip. On an earlier voyage the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had been closed, so I had long felt the need to remedy that delayed gratification. In the meantime, the Rijksmuseum had undergone a much-praised complete renovation so it was also on the list.

Neither disappointed. The Rijks is magnificent, easy to navigate and beautifully lucid in organization. When I visited the Prado, I got to appreciate the universal esteem for Velasquez and Goya better, particularly the latter to whose work I had never warmed. Similarly, the riches of the Rijks made me understand Hals better. It of course allows you to see other big guns such as Van Dyck and van Eyck, and a few of the rare Vermeers in this world.

But it also lets you experience great swaths of lesser Dutch artists who would be acclaimed as the greatest masters if they weren’t cheek by jowl with Rembrandt and Vermeer. Cuyp, Ruysdael, Verspronck, Steen. The Rijks, and a swerve to see the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, allowed me to immerse myself in the kind of art pioneered in the Dutch and Flemish Golden Age that we have loved ever since.

In this crucible of modern, democratic capitalism, the artists’ customers were merchant princes, burghers, self-made men, not Popes and Cardinals and aristocrats. Classical and Biblical scenes and royal portraits were not what they were after, but scenes from their lives. Genre scenes, still lifes, landscapes, seascapes, often with the ships that plied the trade routes that enriched the purchasers. Here are domestic interiors, street scenes, harvest festivals, women in the kitchen or playing the harpsichord, men at their desks or posing with their civic peers. Life its own self.

My principle motive in the swerve to Brussels was to see a half dozen works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of my favorites. There are only 45 of his works extant and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a third, which I have seen along with a few in New York and Paris. To see them all you’d have to visit San Diego, Detroit, Berlin, London, Naples, Prague, Darmstadt, Warwickshire.

Brussels was de rigueur since it has six, including a trio of masterpieces – “The Fall of Icarus” and two winter scenes, one of bird catchers in the snow and the majestically anachronistic “The Census in Bethlehem” where Mary on a horse appears in a snowy Dutch street amid oblivious crowds of people some of whom frolic on the frozen canals.

The Van Gogh in Amsterdam with 200 of his works was beautifully curated with a very good audio guide. In the sort of serendipity that makes travel interesting I learned a week or two before leaving that another Van Gogh collection was just down the road an hour away at the Kroller-Muller museum located in a huge nature preserve near the town of Otterlo.

The land was once the hunting retreat of a wealthy industrialist from the turn of the 20th century. His wealthy wife collected art while he shot things, and around 1905 she decided Van Gogh might be collectible. Over the next 20 years she bought 87 of his works for less than $2 million in today’s dollars. That’s about what you’d pay today for a lesser sketch. Paintings go for tens of millions.

The collection has a lot of early work which demonstrate that Van Gogh set out to paint in the manner of the Barbizon School of the time and was quite accomplished. But then he moved to Paris and saw the work of the impressionists and Japanese prints and suddenly became the Van Gogh we know. The standouts of the collection are the famous Night Café, several well-known portraits and a cypress tree with moon and sun.

Since we flew into and out of Paris we got to see once again Saint Louis’s St. Chappelle. This architectural jewel box is one of the medieval wonders of the world. Two days at the Louvre looking at Dutch art again, French from the period of Chardin, and Greek, Roman and Mesopotamia barely scratched the surface of that vast repository of world culture.

A wonderful little show at the Orsay allowed one to see in one place more of Henri Rousseau’s paintings than are likely to be gathered again any time soon. Though he painted at the same time as the post-impressionists his primitivism was sui generis – a naked lady on a sofa in the jungle, for instance. But the cleverly curated show demonstrated that, in fact, he had precursors and was surprisingly influential on the Fauves, surrealists and others who followed. Picasso admired him and bought some of his work.

And then finally we visited Vaux le Vicomte, the model for Versailles and many feel a more artistically satisfying whole than any other stately home of its era with interior design, landscape design and architecture by le Brun, le Notre and Le Vau in perfect harmony.

No visit to France would be complete without indulging in its greatest art form, cuisine. So over the course of several days we ate ourselves silly. Among the treats: A huge delicious meal at an Alsatian Brasserie of choucroute garnie, various pieces of pork, a trio of fish in butter and sparkling wine sauce, and so on. We ate Breton crepes and met three Australian girls on holiday displaying the self-reliant, upbeat, no nonsense characteristics of their tribe.

At several restaurants, including a pair on the Ile St. Louis, we enjoyed eggs poached in red wine with red cabbage over crusty bread, a gazpacho of cantaloupe with a boule of watermelon sorbet for garnish drizzled with basil oil, eggplant fried then covered with goat cheese and gratineed with a dusting of curry flavors. A pate de campagne with pistachios and mushrooms. A minimalist Alice Waters-ish take on bouillabaisse perfected by a luscious rouille. And a splurge to visit the culinary temple of Taillevent with two Michelin stars. It lost a third in 2007 and may still be in mourning. In France this is like losing the Superbowl.

Ordinarily, with dinners at $300 and up, this would be way out of our league, but a prix fixe lunch can be had for less than a third of that, or about the price of two disappointing executive steak house dinners.

Located in a Duc’s former hotel particulier a couple blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, the dining room we sat in was a cube lined with what looked like pecan wood paneling. The wait staff was attentive, professional, knowledgeable and unobtrusive. An amuse-bouche was a single perfect prawn wrapped in pastry reminiscent of a wonton wrapper, ever so lightly fried and served with a teaspoon of creamy peach-colored sauce flavored with a bit of sweetness and a bit of sour. Fantastic.

Next, scrambled eggs the likes of which I have rarely had, with two small perfect spears of asparagus and a foamy bit of morel jus for sauce. A creamy, buttery risotto flavored and dyed with squid ink accompanied by a few perfectly sautéed lengths the same creature.

Main courses of tiny perfect slices of duck breast and pan juice sauce accompanied by a timbale of finely-diced, meltingly-sautéed fruit which I was told was similar to an apricot and grown in Spain. Alas, I didn’t get the name. It may have been a nispero. And an indescribable rabbit sliced very fine and wrapped around spinach and organ meat, rolled up and roasted and served with caramelized onion shredded so fine it resembled sauerkraut, a browned baby shallot and a few tortellini-like objects stuffed with mushroom and a tart/sweet sauce. A tiny plate of food, but hugely satisfying. Alchemy.

Desserts were a tiny bit of chocolate cake napped with a chocolate cream and drizzled with a chocolate sauce. Lovely but nothing next to a tiny ball of grapefruit sorbet covered in a crisp yellow shell like the exterior of an M&M so it looked like a miniature grapefruit, served atop tiny supremes of grapefruit on a wafer of cake resting on a red grapefruit gelee. All in all, among the better two hours I have spent in my life. An aesthetic as well as a culinary experience. Every morsel a testament to incredible skill, practice and invention.

This, like every other art, is both the definition of civilization and is only made possible by a culture prosperous and educated enough to support it. About twenty-five diners were served by a dozen staff and their maître d’. He came to chat as the meal neared its end. He told me the restaurant was founded in 1946 and that he has been with it for 41 years.

At first when I asked how long they had been in business he misunderstood and thought I had asked him how business was. He told me that since November, that is, the terrorist attacks, business had been down 24%. Sad, but as he said, “C’est la vie.” That is, what’re you gonna do? And the answer is, in the face of barbarism embrace its opposite. The French culture of cuisine has been around several hundred years. Taillevent for 70 of them. With any luck it will endure.

My friend Jane loves to quote the proverbial wisdom: “La sauce, c’est tout.” The meat and potatoes of quotidian life can be boring, disgusting, horrifying, exhausting. The arts and sciences, the beauty that human invention makes out of plain ingredients, including the art of cooking, these are the sauce that make life worth living.

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