New CfB programme

Le Cercle français de Belfast has just published its new season programme for 2021-2022. Some events will be streamed, others held in place when health restrictions permit and some will be in both formats thanks to live streaming. Participation in Cercle events has widened considerably over lockdown as many new members from further afield than Belfast have been able to join in its virtual presentations.

For more details see

Caprice des Dieux


Spotted it straightaway on the cheese shelf of my local supermarket. Caprice des Dieux.
It might be new here but I tasted it for the first time decades ago. It was one of those introductory tastes to the French cheeseboard and I would often eat it sandwiched in a baguette. Yes it's industrial and at a remove from the artisanal varieties I enjoy these days but it still holds a special place in my taste memories - a first embrace in this amour de fromage. 

Bonne fête nationale 2021

 A Bastille day breakfast to start the day right. Couldn't find my French flags so improvised with fruit bowls of blueberries, yoghurt and raspberries. Croissants and apricot jam to follow, love it!

Bonne continuation !

Surréalisme 1971 - together and apart

"Make sure," advised the museum art curator, "to always buy the catalogue of important art exhibitions you attend." She explained that a great deal of time and effort would have gone into bringing the various items together from different collections or galleries around the world. It would be fairly certain that those pictures would never again be together in the same exhibition.

Since that talk to our French Cercle around 15 years ago I've heeded her advice as often as interest and wallet would allow. Pity I wasn't aware of her good counsel for one exhibition I attended when I had just turned 20 and when such advice was beyond my maturity.  Still, that exhibition left an indelible mark and an enduring appreciation.

Surrealist exhibition

It was 1971 in Bordeaux on a free day away from summer camp duties as moniteurs a group of us visited the Galerie des Beaux-Arts which was hosting an exhibition on Surréalisme. We recognised of course some of the artists' names such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso and were introduced to René Magritte but it was the effect of those paintings that left the indelible mark.

Two in particular.  One a large picture of the Madonna spanking her child over her knees, a halo lying on the ground and three men looking at the scene through a small window.  The other was of Saint Anthony being tempted, pursued by ominous clouds and sensual demons.

Of course I didn't take the details of the artists at the time much less buying a catalogue. Nor did I take the titles of the works.  But decades later and having heard the art curator's advice I thought it would be interesting to track down those images.

Tracing the artists

Where to begin? Books on Surrealist art naturally and internet search engines. It was amazing and daunting to see just how many times Saint Anthony was tempted. Poor chap! And as for the Madonna and Child?  Une aiguille dans une botte de foin - a needle in a haystack.

What about checking the site of the Gallerie des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux? Yes, some interesting pointers but then a moment of inspiration. If the art curator was right and the done thing was to purchase an exhibition catalogue then maybe there would be a copy online. I knew exactly where and when the exhibition took place, Bordeaux 1971 and it was worth a try. 

Surreal ! There it was - a catalogue for sale from Galerie Artima in Paris. 

Yes, you're right. I did buy it and here it is...

The exhibition catalogue all the way back from the past. It's in a remarkably good state, with wear mostly on the spine.  A colourful cover, La main fertile by André MASSON designed specially for the exhibition  and with mostly black and white pictures inside.

The curator was definitely right - the provenance of the artworks from individual collections and galleries was widespread: Anvers, Bâle, Bandol, Bordeaux, Bruxelles, Charleroi, Dortmund, Gand, Genève, Hambourg, Helsinki, Ixelles, Knokke-Le Zoute, Londres, Limoges, Marseille, Nantes, Neuilly-sur-Seine, New York, Paris, Prague, Saint-Denis, Seillans and Strasbourg. That must have been some task; a labour of love to reach out and coordinate all those places over several months, if not years. Confirmation that those pictures were most unlikely to ever be under the same roof again.

But at least now I had the catalogue!

Sure enough, one of the colour plates was Item #96 Max Ernst's La Vierge corrigeant l'enfant Jésus painted in 1926. Its dimensions were recorded as 196 x 130 cms and was contributed by Mme Jean KREBS, Bruxelles.

Saint Anthony was there too.  The sensual horror of the scene muted by its reproduction as a small black and white image. It's La Tentation de Saint Antoine by Dorothea Tanning. Item #221, it was painted in 1945 - 46 with dimensions 121,5 x 91 cms.  So smaller than the Max Ernst but large in my memory. It was supplied by the Galerie François PETIT in Paris.

Those two pictures, separated by 20 years in their production, were not only connected in my memory but it turns out that their artists were also connected.  In a biographical note the catalogue records that Max Ernst went to the United States in 1941, staying there for twelve years.  While there, he connects with American, Dorothea Tanning and they marry.

Where are they now?

So nearly 50 years on, where are the pictures now?  Well, I've spent some fascinatingly, fruitful hours tracking them down and meeting other great pictures that they have created on the way.

The Max Ernst now hangs in Museum Ludwig in Köln while the Dorothea Tanning is in La Salle University Art Museum, Philadelphia.  So together in Bordeaux in 1971 and today continents apart - that art curator knew what she was talking about. 

I have become quite a fan of Dorothea Tanning who lived to over 100 years of age from 1910 to 2012 and who in her later life became a novelist and a fine poet. 

But what if a reader wanted to know more about those artists and pictures?

Well I was coming to that...

These links should help:

Spend a while at the Museum Ludwig in Köln for Max Ernst and then spend 5 minutes with Dorothea Tanning with superb commentary on the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Impressionist and Modern Art specialist Vanessa Fusco of Christies art auctions whose New York house managed the sale of the picture back in 2018 for well over $1,000,000. And you can read there too about the art prize in which the winning picture of Saint Anthony being tempted in the desert would be featured in the 1947 film of The Private Affairs of Bel Ami based on the Maupassant short story.  Dorothea's Anthony didn't win but Max's Anthony did and just as in my catalogue his picture is presented in colour in an otherwise black and white film. 

Hope you enjoy.  I would love to know what you think.

And if I could leave you with a piece of advice?

When you are next at a major exhibition, don't be tempted not to, BUY the catalogue!

Learning French - old school books

Old school French books retained from childhood days. They take me back.

Funny to meet your younger self from decades ago by browsing the texts and seeing the fountain pen scrawls in the margins.  To see those words that gave difficulty; a story that took weeks to unravel through class reading and translation; not good enough to read ahead and needing the teacher to explain. 

The damaged spine of the doodled upon French Book 5 suggests that the two-strapped leather satchel that had protected the beginner's books had been replaced by a grown up canvas bag slung carelessly over one shoulder. 

Why did I not take more care with that book?  Was interest starting to wane? And if it was, how did it rekindle?

Oh, I know the answer to that!

In an all boys school, French suddenly became "fab" in order to impress the attractive assistante assigned to us for conversation classes.  And what synchronicity when only half a dozen years later, by then utterly enthused with French, I would be the assistant d'anglais in a school in central France where she was a teacher of English?  Bonjour mademoiselle, vous vous souvenez de moi ?  "Fab"or what?

I wish I had been more solicitous of my notebooks. We used to have slim versions for vocabulary with a vertical centred line.  French words one side, English the other. 

One terrible habit I fell into then was not recording the gender of any new nouns I came across.
Such a mistake.  And using the title of one my old books, let me close this post with une formule :
Meet a new word, learn it with its article.

Saint Émilion Vintage 81

Author's note:

This article was first posted as 24 hours in Saint Émilion on in August 2020.  It is a follow up to a post that appeared ten years earlier on francofiled in August 2010. 

Click here for the previous post entitled Saint Émilion - Message in a bottle. 

The plan to spend a night in the medieval town of Saint-Émilion was uncorked some years back. Nearly two decades ago we had been in the town and purchased a special bottle from the 1981 vintage of Château Franc-Pourret to commemorate our wedding year. 

The idea, still not realised, was to crack it open at a special anniversary. It was on checking its current status for drinkability that we noted that the Château offered the opportunity to stay in the heart of the vignoble in highly rated chambre d'hôte accommodation. 

The plan developed its aroma when last September, we arranged to spend a few weeks in France starting in Bordeaux before moving in stages up to Paris. 

What about the Château? Did available dates match? Could we dine there? 
And importantly would we be able to bring the bottle back to its birthplace? 

Contact with Madame OUZOULIAS, Catherine, was simplicity itself.  Demand was always high and yes, she had a room available for one night only – a Sunday; she offered a sumptuous breakfast but no evening meals; and while she liked the idea, she counselled against coming with the bottle of wine thinking that perhaps we had missed its apogée and might enjoy it better at home where it was already well rested! The date matched, no deposit was required and of course we booked!

Trains from Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion are fairly frequent and it's a short journey but last summer there were major works underway at our destination, so we got out at Libourne and made the rest of the journey by coach. The station at 1,5 km is some distance out of the town, a good 20-minute walk, although you can phone a taxi or tuk-tuk service. Catherine, however, had arranged to collect us at the station and bring us to the estate. 

Château Franc-Pourret was an elegant delight and we felt instantly at home. There waiting for us were a couple of half bottles of the property’s wines and one of them was a little relative of the bottle back home! We would toast our arrival later that evening but meantime there was some exploring to be done. 

Catherine suggested that we make our way into the town by strolling through the vines. Our route brought us out near the imposing Tour du Roy and from there we made our way to the unforgettable 12th century Église Monolithe commanding its lovely paved square. 

The association with Émilion started a little earlier though when in the 8th century he left his native Brittany, became a monk and ended in Ascumbas, the ancient and former name of the area. There he lived in a cave and joined by others formed a religious community. After his death in 787, a village was built in his honour and 12 centuries later the town of Saint-Émilion, its vineyards and religious sites have become a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

We had been in this square often before and thought we would savour the memories over a glass of pastis. After all, it was a hot afternoon. Suitably refreshed, we decided we should find somewhere for an evening meal before heading back to Franc-Pourret. Although many restaurants were closed there was plenty of choice and we opted for Chai Pascal.  Calling in, the patronne advised that they wouldn't be serving until 7pm and suggested we book a table. Done. That gave us an hour or more, so still plenty of time to sightsee. 

On our rambles, and not far from the Place de L'Église Monolithe we spotted a sign for a wine merchant - The Wine Buff Experience with Paddy O’Flynn.

While we were looking at the sign a smiling woman, Pilar, asked us if we were Irish and invited us in to meet Paddy. We were treated to a tour of the tasting room, which seemed like a monolith itself carved out of limestone. It was wonderfully cool. 

A taste of Saint-Émilion? Of course. And then a lovely chat with Paddy and Pilar about wines from the region. We arranged to call back the next day and avail of their ordering service.

The meal at Chai Pascal was delicious and we could have sat on, but we had decided to walk it back and night was falling. Not through vineyards at this hour but along the road, using the light from our mobiles to alert passing motorists of our presence. What a lovely feeling to be in wine country at night-time. Yes, that half bottle of Franc-Pourret was waiting. 

Breakfast next morning was a treat, living up to its reputation. A bowl of greengage - reine-claude plums - baked in a crust, an array of cereals, juices, fruits, croissants, homemade jams, organic yoghurt and coffee. Magnificent. 

Our bus connection for the train back to Bordeaux was not until 5pm so we still had a day in Saint-Émilion. Catherine suggested we look around the estate and when our bags were packed, she would store them in her car in the shade. Then later she would come to collect us in town and take us back to the station. We readily agreed and picked as our rendezvous point the car park at the Collegiate Church. This time the stroll through the vines took a different route. Passing château after château it was like walking through a wine list and we arrived directly at our appointed rendezvous spot. Time to appreciate this lovely church and its cloister and learn a little more about Émilion. Quiet. 

Then out again to the town now busy with newly arrived day trippers all making their way to the square. We spotted a shop selling macarons. 

This gourmet tradition dates back to the late 1600s when the sisters of the town’s Ursuline convent confected the recipe from sweet and bitter almonds, sugar and egg whites. We bought some boxes to offer as gifts. 

Another walk around the town, stopping at various points and just soaking it all in. The town has been modernised much over the years and grand hotels now bring a more international style to the spaces they occupy. Still, that medieval heart beats strong. 

A light lunch? Why not? Une omelette complète filled with cheese, ham and mushroom, aided and abetted with crusty bread and helped on its way with a glass of rosé chilled to perfection. 

Back to the Wine Buff, sample some wines and place an order. That's a whole other story but suffice to say that momentous events in our household are accompanied by a bottle taken from the stock ordered that day. And we are still in touch with Paddy and Pilar through social media. 

Where had the day gone? Time to move and await our pickup with Catherine. We went back to the Collegiate Church where we had agreed to meet. She arrived spot on time and took us back to the station. She seemed pleased with the box of macarons as we offered our thanks and goodbyes. We would think of her often and Château Franc-Pourret will be an abiding memory.

And there is of course that bottle that remains from 1981 to be opened… sometime. 

We also brought home a couple of its half-sized relations. No longer a Saint-Émilion alone in its cave.

It's got plenty of company! 


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Bus stop wine

It was a rare afternoon out with friends. Cafés and restaurants had started to reopen after stringent lockdown measures and safety precautions were much in evidence. The waiting staff at our lunch spot wore masks and were getting used to a new way of meeting, greeting and presenting our food.

We didn't stay long indoors however and instead made our way to a nearby open air terrace which was situated beside a bus stop.

A farewell glass of wine before heading home? Who knows when we'll get out again.

Turns out it was a very public glass of wine.  That bus stop was a busy place with passengers pulling off or putting on masks as buses arrived or departed and others waiting for theirs.

You know how people say they love to sit at a pavement café in Paris or other big city and watch passers-by? Well this time it was the other way round, the passers-by and passengers were people watching us!

The wine we had chosen was a 2016 Louis Latour Pinot Noir from the Domaine de Valmoissine in the Var.  Corona virus hadn't been thought of when those grapes were bottled and while 2016 had disappointed us in other ways this wine was lovely.  Every cloud... 

Inevitably people who knew one or other of our company spotted us and stopped for a socially distanced greeting.  "Well for some!" said an old work colleague and friend who would no doubt have liked to join us but for his bus pulling in to the stop. We raised a glass as he headed home.

Too public!  Next time we'll take the train, eschewing the bus stop for the station. 

A dégu-station !