Monday, July 21, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad: The Most Macabre Place in Paris

Stop! Here is the Empire of Death!

So reads the ominous sign as you enter the Paris Catacombes, two hundred metres below ground.
The catacombs are a relic of Paris' past, some two hundred miles of underground passageways and limestone quarry tunnels that originally date back to Roman times and occupy huge areas of the Left Bank. They lay abandoned for many centuries, a honeycomb labyrinth of caves and passages.
In the 1700s the catacombs were re-opened for use when it became clear that Paris cemeteries were literally overflowing. The Cemetery of the Innocents, near present day Les Halles in Paris, had been in use for over ten centuries and the cemetery was so overburdened that older corpses were exhumed and placed in nearby charnel houses, where they were sources of disease. A decision was made to close the cemetery forever and create an underground ossuary where the skeletons of Parisians could be respectfully stored.

The catacombs were consecrated in 1786, and every night for the next two years the excavated bones were blessed by priests and taken in black-covered wagons to the catacombs and deposited there. Later, bones from other cemeteries were added. The ossuary now contains the remains of more than six million former Parisians.
The curiosity for the catacombs began in the early 1800s when they were open to the public for the first time. There was a morbid fascination with the galleries stacked neatly with bones, and the poetic inscriptions placed to remind us of the fragility of life and the certainty of death.The catacombs became wildly popular as a macabre attraction, with a black line painted on the ceiling to guide visitors through the labyrinth. 
The sculptures of Décure were popular curiosities - the quarryman spent many years carving an exact replica of a prison on the island of Minorca where he was held captive by the English. He died when a staircase he was carving collapsed.

But for many the attraction was simply a fascination with death, the last taboo. The unique beauty of the tombs and tunnels lies in the quiet darkness of the weight of the earth above and the six million souls below. It gives pause to us mortals to consider our inevitable fate.

'Thus ends everything on Earth 
Spirit, beauty, grace, talent
Short-lived like a fleeting flower 
Blown down by the slightest breeze.'

Paris Catacombes
Catacombes de Paris
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
75014 Paris

Open daily 10am - 5pm
Closed Mondays
Last entry 4pm

Métro: Denfert-Rochereau

Admission 10 euros, English audio guides 3 euros

Note: The Catacombs are a very popular attraction. Arrive very early (before 9am) or expect a wait of up to four hours to enter.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad: Swooning for Macarons at Ladurée, Paris

Macarons. Pink like kisses, pale pistachio green, golden like honey, rows and rows of small meringue discs sandwiched together with ganache to make a macaron, the world's most decadent mouthful, with love from Paris.

Macarons have been around for longer than sliced bread - since 791 in fact, and the most famous macaroni house of all is Ladurée, founded in 1862 by Louis-Ernest Ladurée with a shop on the Rue Royale in Paris. It was his wife Jeanne's idea to combine the pâtisserie with a café and thus establish one of Paris' first tea salons, a place where women could meet (at the time cafés were for men only). 
At that time macaroons were just a single disc of meringue cooked with almond meal. It took Ladurée's grandson Pierre Desfontaine to think of sandwiching two macarons together with ganache in the way we eat them today, taking Paris by storm. 

Ladurée has several houses in Paris but I love Ladurée Bonaparte the best, for its tea salon. Upstairs from the pâtisserie is a jewel box lined in dark blue velvet, with tasselled silk drapes and plush upholstered mahogany chairs, with gilt-framed photographs lining the walls. It seats no more than twenty, so sometimes, agonisingly, you have to wait.
Taking a little petit-déjeuner there is very civilised, and a great start to a day in Paris.

Start with coffee, served in a warmed silver jug with hot milk on the side, from cups with Ladurée's signature pink, pistachio and blue edged in gilt.

Or have a hot chocolate, again served in your own warmed silver jug. Why aren't all hot chocolates served this way?

Than have a pastry or two - this was the most perfect almond, hazelnut and walnut croissant (croissant fourré) I have ever eaten.

Or perhaps French toast, Ladurée style - slices of light buttery brioche dipped in egg and pan-fried.

Just a tip - Ladurée is a pâtisserie, so pastry is what they do best. The omelettes are best avoided.

After breakfast, slip downstairs to buy your macarons from the twenty-odd flavours on display - salted caramel is their most popular, but I would also highly recommend rose, orange blossom, chocolate, coffee, lime basil, and pistachio. They will come nestled in a wax-paper lined box and in one of Ladurée's pistachio-coloured bags. 

And yes, they taste every bit as good as they look!

Ladurée Bonaparte
21 rue Bonaparte
75006 Paris

Open Monday to Friday 8.30am - 7.30pm
Saturday 8.30am - 8.30pm
Sundays and holidays 10am - 7.30pm

Métro - St Germain des Pres (Line 4)

This week is Paris Week at Life on Nanchang Lu!
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad: The Museum of Hunting and Nature, Paris

What I like so much about the French is that they are unapologetic about the past.

Take hunting. Three hundred years ago every French aristocrat hunted, for sport. They glorified hunting. Famous artists painted portraits of them standing over their quarry, puffed with pride and lace cravats. They collected hunting horns and muskets and the heads of their prey, mounted on walls.

That was then. But rather than bow to modern social mores and pretend it was an embarrassing aspect of their history best forgotten, they have built a shrine to hunting and its glorious past in Paris.

It's one of the best small museums in the world, and if you're in Paris, make sure you go.

It's called the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (the Museum of Hunting and Nature) and it celebrates the at-times uneasy relationship between man and nature.

The story behind the creation of the museum is typically quirky. It was founded by carpet and rug millionaires François and Jacqueline Sommer in 1964, and housed in a mansion built in the 1650s. The Sommers acquired thousands of hunting-related artefacts and artworks which became the foundation of the museum. François was a passionate hunting advocate all his life, but Jacqueline presumably sensed a shift in the national conscience and established the French Association for Photographic Hunting. They were both passionate nature-lovers, which may seem incongruous.

The museum feels like a grand old house, its rooms filled with beautiful antiques, the walls lined with damask and heavy velvet drapes. Each room is dedicated uniquely to a single animal, for example The Falconry Room, The Salon of the Dogs, and The Cabinet of the Wolf.

Juxtaposed in the midst of all this antiquity is the work of modern artists. Lin Utzon (daughter of Sydney Opera House architect Jørn Utzon) has an installation of starkly monochromatic sculptural works on display at present. A tiny closet of a room, Le Cabinet de la Licorne (The Unicorn Room), had me transfixed for an hour with the history of unicorn hunting in the Middle Ages and the stunning video art installation Unicorn by French artist Maïder Fortune.                                

In the Stag Room we are invited to become hunters ourselves, looking through a pair of brass binoculars mounted in a wooden cabinet. Through the lenses I saw a real life forest scene, the sun slanting through the leafy canopy. I watched and waited and my heartbeat slowed, my senses suddenly alive for the moment I knew the stag would appear as it wandered from behind a stand of trees. For a second I thought the stag would surely hear me and I held my breath, before I remembered I'm watching a recording.

I felt slightly flushed and uncomfortable. I had just vicariously experienced the thrill of the hunter, and I'm quite opposed to hunting. At least, I thought I was.

In the next room I was hunting, visually, for canis lupus, the wolf. He appeared in the middle distance, walking into a forest clearing. I felt less conflicted this time. 

Then in a room devoted to paintings of game birds I was confronted by a polar bear, stretched to more than two metres tall on his hind legs. I felt very insignificant, and not a little threatened. The hunter become the hunted in an instant.

The Salon of the Dogs

The gold inlaid detail of a seventeenth century musket in The Gun Room
A perfect bronze stag, no bigger than my hand.

The Wild Boar in charge of The Wild Boar Room

It's a rare museum that stimulates the visitor both visually, emotionally and intellectually. Some will see the museum only as a reminder of a more barbaric time best forgotten, others will contemplate man's insatiable desire to conquer nature and wonder why. Some, like me, will have a profoundly enriching and thoughtful experience. How will you react I wonder?

(And if you visit, hunt for the tiny cheeky mouse painted in the corner of one of the rooms)

Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
The Museum of Hunting and Nature

62 Rue des Archives, 
75003, Paris

Closest Métro Rambuteau (Line 11)

Open Tuesday - Sunday 11am - 6pm, Wednesday evenings until 9.30pm
Closed Mondays and holidays

Entry 8 euros for adults, 6 euros for concessions and holders of a hunting licence
Free entry for children under 18 years and professional artists

Tomorrow: Breakfasting at Ladurée, Home of Macarons

Monday, July 14, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad in Paris

Paris. A city that lives as much in the world's collective imagination as it does in reality. 

For me, it was even better than I remembered. Long sunny days, glorious twilights, glittering nights, wonderful food. For a week we lived in an apartment, slept late, ate croissants like they were, in fact, good for us, and drank glasses of chilled rosé sitting on the terraces of tiny restaurants. It was glorious.

The occasion? Twenty-five years ago I met my wonderful husband Matt, and it felt like a great reason to celebrate given that we are still together, despite putting ourselves through a major relationship test of six months driving around China together in a camper van.  

As with all important decisions in our family, the destination of the celebrations (coinciding with school holidays) was put to a vote.

"Where shall we go for our anniversary holidays?" I asked. 

"Anywhere but China," said Lily, devastatingly. But she had a point. I went to China eight times last year, and she came along for four of those trips.

"Paris!" said Bella, who is studying French. 

Paris? I thought. Paris hadn't even been on my radar. And we'd been there three or four times already.

"Yes!" said Matt, beaming. "Paris!"

"Ooh! Yes! Paris would be awesome!" said Lily.

"How about Sweden?" I said, angling for somewhere new. Northern Europe was completely unknown to me and I had been secretly plotting a trip to Sweden in my head.

"No, Paris," said Bella.

"What about Norway or Finland? The sun will never set!" I said.

"Paris," said Matt and Bella together. I was beginning to worry my family had lost all sense of adventure.

"Latvia?" I asked, thinking OK, it was in Europe, but it wasn't the usual Europe'. 

"Paris!" came the united reply. 

And so we went to Paris, three votes to one.

As I said, it was even better than I remembered. Having done all the big ticket items on our last few visits (the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Musée d'Orsay and riding on a bateau mouche along the Seine), this time we had a very different Paris experience. We took it slow, we walked all day, shopped in the markets, and saw new parts of Paris and new things we had never seen before.

This week will be Paris Week at Life on Nanchang Lu, with a new post every day - so you can have a little taste of life in the City of Lights. 
Twenty five years. Quite unbelievable. At the Musee Louvre, on the only day of the week it's closed (Tuesday). 
Pont des Arts, covered with love locks

The fabulous Niki de Saint-Phalle sculpture in the Stravinsky Fountain, George Pompidou Centre
Sacré Cœur, Montmartre
Jardin du Luxembourg
Needs no introduction really. Always magnificent. 

 And yes, we got to do some of those shots of the Eiffel Tower.

Coming up tomorrow: Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (The Museum of Hunting and Nature)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad in Hong Kong: An Eating Tour of Sheung Wan

Nanchang Lu is abroad, and my first stop is Hong Kong! (en route to Paris, London, Scotland and then Champagne)

I love Hong Kong. I love the noise, the vibrant colours, the smells, the heat and humidity. And above all - the food. Oh, the glorious, abundant food!

Thanks to the handy timing of a medical conference, my friend Doctor S. and I spent a whole week in Hong Kong staying in Sheung Wan District on Hong Kong Island, eating our way around the area each morning and evening.

Sheung Wan is just one stop west of Central on the MTR, but it feels like a regular Hong Kong neighbourhood with its local wet market and dried seafood purveyors lining Des Voeux Street West. The eats are much more local too, with fewer fancy restaurants and lots of small wonton noodle shops and old style Hong Kong eateries.

Here's a whistle stop tour of my five favourite spots:

1. Seng Kee Congee
You've got to love people who are so passionate about congee they start cooking at two in the morning in order to be ready for the breakfast trade each day. 

The congee base is made from pork bones, lean pork and dried scallops, simmered for four hours (hence the 2am start) before the addition of rice and tofu skins, resulting in a smooth and delicately savoury rice porridge. The cook then adds ingredients to your taste and serves it alongside a small bowl with soy sauce and julienned ginger and scallions. At Seng Kee Congee there are no fewer than sixty-one congee varieties to choose from, each delicious no doubt, but none more so than the popular fish slice congee. 

Congee is a deeply comforting dish, warm, simple and tasty. And please don't make up your mind you don't like the stuff until you've tried it here - you might just become a convert.
Check out the number plate on the van parked in front of the restaurant...

Seng Kee Congee
7 Burd Street (corner Hillier Street)
Sheung Wan
Open 6.30am-9pm Monday to Saturday, closed Sundays

2. Sheung Wan Market
Fresh fish! Bok choy! Roses! Roast duck! 

You can find all these and more at the Sheung Wan Market, an indoor produce market open seven days a week. Like all wet markets this one makes for a fascinating wander: frogs wriggling in tubs, butchers carving up pork, live eels, and row after row of neat green Chinese vegetables.

The buzz is all on the top floor where there are a dozen or so simple Hong Kong eateries serving breakfast and lunch - yum cha, congee, noodles, soup, and simple fried dishes. It has very local flavour (all of the vendors eat here, as do the locals before or after shopping) and bargain prices so you can happily sit with a pot of tea and a steamer full of dumplings and take it all in. 

Sheung Wan Market
Corner Morrison Street and Queen's Road Central, Sheung Wan
Top Floor Eatery
Open 7 days a week from 3.30am until 3pm (many vendors closed on Sundays)

3. Mak An Kee Wonton Noodles
Supreme Wonton Noodle Soup - $HK46
Hong Kong's wonton noodles are justifiably famous, and some of the best can be found here at Mak's, a tiny formica-tabled shop on Wing Kut Street. Slender egg noodle threads with a textural bite, clear peppery soup, and the treasure sitting atop it all - fat, springy prawn wontons, each just a single plump seasoned prawn the size of a man's thumb, wrapped in a paper-thin translucent wrapper.

The other notable on their menu is the beef brisket wonton noodle soup ($HK50) - a dark, beefy broth flavoured with five spice and ginger and topped with the softest, most tender and succulent pieces of braised beef brisket, complete with gelatinous tendons. Underneath it all are the same fine noodles and tiny prawn wontons. Amazing, according to my dining companion Doctor S.

(I should note, this is not the famous Mak's on Wellington Street, but a Mak's from the same family. And according to Hong Kong food writer Janice Leung-Hayes (e-ting) this one is better, and also cheaper.)

Mak An Kee Wonton Noodles
37 Wing Kut Street 
Sheung Wan
Open seven days

4. Coffee at The Cupping Room
Doctor S. knows a thing or two about coffee, and finds it difficult to face the prospect of morning food adventures with me without a strengthening long black or two. So I trust her opinion when she says that The Cupping Room has the best coffee in Sheung Wan, or perhaps even all of Hong Kong. Case closed.

(For those who can't - despite my encouragement - stomach congee for breakfast, The Cupping Room does a very decent Western breakfast.)

The Cupping Room
Cleverly Street, corner Queens Road Central
Sheung Wan
Mon-Fri 8am-5pm
Sat 8am-6pm
Sun 10am-5pm
Closed Tuesdays

5. Rest your Feet at Cleverly Street

After all that walking around Sheung Wan eating, you may need to find a quiet spot to sit. There's none cuter than the Cleverly Street Sitting-Out Area - green, leafy and peaceful. Just don't try and hang out your wet washing there, because that is expressly forbidden.

Sheung Wan: The Map
Click on the link above for an interactive map of these five spots in Sheung Wan.
Sheung Wan: The Map