Liberté, Egalité, Sororité

2004, Entente Cordiale, Commemorative Crown
One of the beneifts of social media that I appreciate is the ease with which I can keep in touch with news and stories from France. I have a particular interest in Le Berry in the Région Centre and so will often browse to the local edition of newspapers.  Recently a story caught my attention in Le Berry Republicain.  A statue had been found in a clearing in an estate in the Sologne. It used to belong to a factory in Vierzon but had been moved when new owners took over in the 1960s. The statue was referred to as La Française and it made me think of my favourite French symbol - Marianne.  Although the French flag is the only official symbol for France, Marianne embodies the values of the nation.  She has two sides to her character - the angry warrior on the Arc de Triomphe or the sower, scattering potential, as depicted on French coinage and stamps.
The newspaper article refers to the Roman goddess, Cérès - symbol of motherhood and agricultural abundance, and the link with Marianne as sower is obvious.
In Britain, Brittania has also come to symbolise the country although I have not seen her portrayed in the duality of the warrior-sower.
In 2004, the Royal Mint struck a £5 coin - a crown - to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. I have one of the coins and much admire the artistic device of bringing together Marianne and Brittania.
Marianne wears her bonnet phrygien, itself a symbol of freedom from slavery - Liberty. She carries her sower's pouch ready to scatter a fistful of seeds. For her part, Brittania strikes the warrior pose.
Although the two are linked, there is a clear separation between them - Liberty.
Together in the round, neither takes prominence - Equality.
A feminine circle, a sisterhood - Sorority.

Saint-Emilion - Message in a bottle

Château Franc-Pourret, 1981
News programmes these days seem to be full of claim and counter-claim about the budget deficit and the effect of cuts in public spending.  Old certainties such as buying property seem no longer to apply as house prices fall, leaving some in the position of negative equity.  Canny investors suggest putting money into art purchases and others into buying and cellaring fine wine.
Back in 2000, I invested in some wine. It was more of an emotional decision than a financial one because I only bought one bottle.  Not any old bottle mind you! It was a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru from the Château Franc-Pourret, belonging to the Ouzoulias family. Its vintage is 1981.
Now 1981 is special because it was the year in which we got married.
The wine was already 19 years old when we visited the lovely medieval town of Saint-Emilion. We had family lunch in the square and still had some hours to spend before continuing our homeward journey.  I had visited the town before in the 1970s, when access to the monolithic church was much freer than now.  I distinctly recall remaining inside at the end of a short tour and feeling very much at ease in the place. There was no visit to the church on this occasion but we did pay our respects to one of the many shops selling high-end wine from the appellation. The merchant, intent on selling the bottle, assured us that it was excellent value and would continue improving with age. He even offered to buy it back at some future date provided that we had kept it properly. I wonder how he would know. Well, we bought it.
I said it was an emotional investment and we felt confident that we could keep it until 2006 when it and our marriage would be twenty-five years old.  It would, we thought, provide an appropriate focal point for an anniversary dinner.
We didn't drink it and it is still there lying on its soft carton inlay in its stout wooden box. Somehow, it has managed to survive those stressful evenings when there was nothing else to pour into a relaxing glass.
Apparently it is still going strong. I looked it up on the internet and it scores16 out of 20.  I don't know its current value as I would have to write to the château for a price but I figure I made a good investment.
Here's the funny thing, I have never tasted the wine! But by not opening it, I risk denying it its potential. It was made for drinking so we will just have to fix another date and keep to it next time.  I have uncorked a plan!
Surfing for details of the wine has revealed an interesting association. Catherine Ouzoulias provides luxury accommodation at the Château-Franc Pourret and offers tastings.  It looks a very grand and elegant place and from the 5-star reviews she gets, sounds like a great place to stay.  I wonder would she mind us bringing the wine back to its birthplace and letting us drink it there!  We might just need a second bottle.

Tarte Tatin

Hotel Tatin at Lamotte-Beuvron, France

Ever since I can remember I have loved apple tart.   As a child it was sometimes served with a taste of milk in a small bowl or saucer and at Hallowe’en the pie would hide a buried treasure - a sixpence wrapped in greaseproof paper.  Now when I see it on a menu, it’s hard to say no! 

Much though I am a fan of that closed, deep-filled pie variety if Tarte Tatin appears on a menu, that’s it.  Forget profiterolles or crème brulée, I’ll be making straight for the luscious, caramelised upside down apple tart.  Given its gourmet status on many posh restaurant menus, Maxim’s for example, it is hard to believe it was created by accident. 

When I bite into a portion, I guess I feel a bit like Marcel Proust tucking into a madeleine and being transported back through time to old memories. 

Tarte Tatin brings me back to France and its Région Centre, to Lamotte-Beuvron in fact.  I first went there in the early seventies and on a recent holiday to nearby Pierrefitte-sur-Sauldre paid hommage to the birthplace of Tarte Tatin. 

Standing opposite the SNCF railway station is the imposing Hotel Tatin, a former hunting lodge.  The story has it that at the end of the 19th century the lodge was being run by the Tatin sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline.  Stéphanie had a lot to do one day and Caroline is reported to have been chatting to some of the hunters staying at the lodge. Possibly annoyed that she was doing all the work, and wanting to see what her sister was up to, Stephanie left her stove.  She forgot about the sliced apples she was cooking for a pie. When she returned the apples had caramelised.  Whether though annoyance or inspiration she decided to cover them anyway with some pastry to make a pie, finished it in the oven and served it to her eager diners.  By all accounts it went down a treat and has remained with us for over 100 years. 

Nowadays, you can find Tarte Tatin on many menus, made with pears or other fruit and even onions.  It seems to me that the classic origins of the dish have been lost along with the Tatin appelation or provenance. Tatin seems to be understood as upside down.  That’s a pity because it’s a great story. 

But all is not lost.  The tarte still has its devotees from all around the world.  Several hundred of us form part of a Facebook group – The Tantalizing Tarte Tatin Appreciation Society.  Will you come and say hello?  Bring your own tarte!