Why they had dinner in the afternoon and ate (yes, ate) tea in the evening in London, how the Parisian Montmartre became a bohemian quarter thanks to a soup

 

London

By Anastasia Denisova

They had supper and went to bed – at five pm. It was in that early mood (and that bleak mood, in our opinion) that an average British family brought to a close their day 300 years ago. Breakfast was early, usually with a piece of yesterday’s meal. There was no dinner – supper came immediately after, at noon. About three or four pm stomach gurgling was appeased by a cup of tea with biscuits. That’s it. There was no electricity back then, the candles were expensive and reeked, so the day was over when darkness came.

That way of life has gone, but the words remained. In Russian schools we were told that dinner was a midday meal (the one that people have a break for during their working time), and supper was an evening meal to be consumed before going to bed. Soviet textbooks were obviously based on Victorian grammar books. Actually, what they have at noon these days is lunch, and dinner comes at about 7 pm. Only the highest rank of the British kingdom calls a bun with cheese dinner at lunchtime. The real dinner (or supper), coming at the normal 7 pm to these people as well, is called tea. There is no tea, though: normal pies and sausages; go figure.

One can appreciate a variety of ancient (but still relevant) traditions of the English household in London’s most secret museum. Few people know that among the scuttling bearded hipsters and Vietnamese eating joints of Hoxton there is the Geffrye Museum, named after the philanthropist Sir Robert Geffrye and dedicated to the English Home. The most attractive thing is that it centers on the life of the middle class, regular people, not some celestial beings. Walking through the halls, you notice how tables, chairs, armchairs, other stuff was changing – based on the changes of their masters, of course.

“I’m working,” a doctor might say to his household without leaving the sofa in the parlor. The same could be said by a merchant trading in carpets. Many wives and children could hear the very same words – because in the 17th century most British professionals worked from home. They were, so to say, freelancers ante litteram. That’s why the parlors always had an imposing oak armchair which was supposed to show who the master was. Very expensive porcelain from China and pseudo-Turkish carpets (woven in Yorkshire) added weight and status to the environment. Real carpets from the Middle East could adorn a cabinet or a coffee table – only very affluent people had the money to splurge on something larger.

A century has passed. “Son, pass me some beer. Have some, too,” was the polite request of a conscious father of the family sometime in mid-18th century. There was no plumbing in the houses yet and the water from the Thames was horrifying, so it was naturally safer to drink the frothy beer, both for adults as well as children.

In the 19th century, the secret of painting paper and fabric the industrial way was unlocked, so wallpaper became available to the masses. The parlors came into flower with puffy roses, olive groves, aquamarine tides worthy of the Caribbean – the otherworldly palette stood in contrast to the bleak weather behind the window panes. The living habits became mixed up with the elements of luxury. The house got separated from the office, the father of the family now took a streetcar to go to work. The dining hall was separated from the leisure room, which was named the ‘drawing room’ – and is still known under that name today.

The woman’s role was defined by popular literature and treatises as ‘The Angel in the House’. The celestial gentle being was supposed to produce many children, cook amazingly, embroider, recite poems and decorate salon albums (which had to be decorated, naturally, in the aforementioned drawing room). Do not feel too bad about our heroine – at the same time many girls from the lower classes became maids, which made it possible to at least shift off the responsibility for cooking onto their shoulders.

After sitting on velvet cushions, leafing through yellowed newspapers and finding a recipe for hog meat in an old magazine, you recline on the sofa in the quiet café of the Geffrye Museum; the terrace, covered in leaves, is suspended between different stories and eras. How wonderful, you think to yourself, that we have water and light, carpets and coffee, women’s education and kitchens without maids. Such simple things make you realize in museum rooms that progress is a great thing. Free interactive museums in the world’s very expensive capitals are the fruit of progress, too.

 

Paris

By Daria Knyazeva

A Soviet child par excellence, I have for many years nursed the food/psychological injuries which were the result of contact with catering and my own grandmothers. Skin on the milk, lumpy cream of wheat, soapy starch drink, watery omelet from egg powder, sausage with white spots… And, of course, the Russian soup, senseless and merciless. Senseless because the vitamins are cooked out of the vegetables anyway; merciless because there is no way to escape it during lunchtime.

It is possible to appreciate this dish differently in different stages of your life; once retired, they say, it is even possible to like it. But this is difficult to believe in childhood years. It has been almost scientifically determined, after all: some children only eat the broth, some children only the solid matter. They do not consume the soup as whole, in its empirical duality. I also failed to connect the liquid and the solid. With my gastronomic independence, I have exiled the soup from my menu for many years. All until the moment when the French cream soups entered my life, including their subtypes with different bodies (velouté, potage, bisque). The blender could easily unify the solid matter with the broth, the broth which I had always hated – and the world exploded in a variety of colors.

In French cuisine, soups occupy an important section. Even the word restaurant is historically not a noun – it is a participle which means ‘restoring’; the travelers were restoring their strength by means of a broth, weak or rich (depending on the greed of the eatery's owners). A bone broth with added vegetables, bread and meat scraps was an elegant alternative version for those who could not afford the pricey meat.

On the first Saturday in November, Place des Abbesses of Montmartre welcomes the festival called Amoureusement Soupe (which translates as something like ‘The Soup, With Love’ or ‘In Love With Soup’). The place is chosen deliberately: it was the soup that helped many Montmartre dwellers survive, which resulted in the birth of many modern art movements. The local legend says that Père Frédé, the owner of the cabaret Lapin Agile, was not very knowledgeable about all those cubisms, expressionisms and other -isms hatching on the Montmartre in the first two decades of the 20th century. Still, he decided that the have-nots with brushes, meditating for hours over glasses of bad local wine, were safer for a drinking establishment than dashing lads from the maquis, the slums on the Western side of the hill. The more the artists drink, the deeper they focus on themselves, unlike the criminal masterminds, who, on the contrary, blow up when drunk, and the more they drink, the worse it becomes. In order to lure the chosen customers, at the end of the day he put out a soup cauldron on the terrace – the soup was made out of remains of daily food. The starving artists could use that broth to bolster their waning spirits in exchange for a small painting or a poetry recital (the gifted are gifted in everything). Depending on how gaunt their cheeks were, one could easily define when the last painting had been sold – probably Picasso alone could complain (or be proud) of excess weight on Montmartre.

Montmartre a century later has turned into an expensive print with artistic studios protected from the wind by triple glazed units, and today’s festival soups have gone a similar distance from the simplistic potage of Père Frédé. Spinach with spices, lentils in coconut milk, pumpkin purée with turmeric and roasted almonds, the carrot-ginger mixture with a filling of Greek yoghurt and lime, velouté from white beans with Cheddar cheese, the chestnut-and-pear soup… The mere list of ingredients could make an artist of the early 20th century faint from hunger. Or paint a picture based on the description that would become the harbinger of a new art movement.

Unfortunately, they do not offer anything for free these days, but the cost of participation remains mostly symbolic: in exchange for €10, the gourmets are offered a deep plate, and using that, they can taste all the offered dishes in turn. Their names is a true song with a lot of Spanish words (after all, it was the invasion of Spanish artists on Montmartre in the late 19th century that made the local artistic climate so fruitful): Caliente, ‘Autumn cream with sun splashes’, Ma Que Calor, ‘Velouté with underwood aromas’, ‘Everything in polka dot!’, ‘Onion soup Maharaja style’, ‘The dream of a spice hunter’. What else could you expect: the dishes are cooked by the famous cooking bloggers of the capital! Since the last year, a specially selected team consisting of members of the hill’s indigenous population has been working side by side with them; their joint task is to nurture out ‘the traditional Montmartre soup’. Chances are slim, though, that it would become an improved version of Père Frédé’s dish. Unfortunately, the natives of Montmartre are as indifferent to Lapin Agile as Muscovites are to Red Square.

 

Bangkok

By Anna Goryainova

What I love about Asia is its brightness. Even during the rainfall season, there is the emerald wet greenery, clouds of every hue of blue, rows of orange mangoes on the pavements in downtown Bangkok, some unbelievable flowers everywhere. It’s a feast for the eye, especially after Moscow, where for most of the year gray bushes stick up mirthlessly against the gray skies. Asian brightness can be a problem though, especially when you look European, are taller than six feet, and need to renew wardrobe. Not to mention the shoes – footwear here is definitely designed for the owners of size 5 ‘lotus feet’. I can easily wear only local flip-flops and, for some reason, shoes evidently meant for pole dancing. It’s beautiful, sure – the platform, the rhinestones, the gold… Especially during a business meeting with the Thai, who are all dressed in black and barely reach your shoulder. Okay, on the doomsday when my last sneakers brought from the homeland are no longer wearable, I could probably take that dance.

With clothes, it’s less complicated, though what is considered jeans for a local woman looks like shortened breeches for me. The most scary thing is the color. Even the things of European mass market brands in Thailand glitter, bedazzle, sport their sequins. If something does not glitter, it is painted a radioactive color. The orange-and-violet T-shirt with a golden inscription ‘I am your dream woman’ is a typical item of Thai attire for a woman of any age. On swarthy black-haired Thai women they actually look quite good. If, on the other hand, I put on something like this… In a word, to look authentic, I’d have to weave dreadlocks and paint them green. So as to make you sure: this is a psycho. Or an artist. There are plenty of both in the expat community not to become a target of excessive attention.

What is good is that the general mood in Thailand is rather relaxed and democratic. You can easily walk across Bangkok in slippers. This is another thing that makes me love this city: you forget what stress is.

Another crazy Thai trend are ‘speaking T-shirts’ with inscriptions. Everyone loves them, but not everyone understands what is written there. That’s why the Latin script can relay quite momentous messages. I have an acquaintance, a decent young man with a very beautiful tattoo on the arm, which he always tries to cover up with a sleeve for some reason. One day I managed to discern the picture – it was the word ‘IDIOT’.

“I was young and didn’t understand what it meant, I just loved the font”, he blushed.

A tattoo can at least be concealed. As for ‘speaking T-shirts’, they are plainly dangerous. If you read the inscriptions, it is easy to be carried away and walk into a lamp-post. I am a perfect gril, suddenly announces the back of a lively young woman. Several months and a couple hundreds T-shirts later you finally understand that this is not a cannibalism announcement, this is a typo in the word ‘girl’. Something went wrong! complains another T-shirt on the street. Goodle, says some other back, obviously promoting something in between Google and noodles. 404 Translation Error is my favorite, I want to have one. A tour into the night markets has so far brought no success – must have been a limited edition. My husband is perfect! looks somewhat unexpected on the chest of a brutal-looking hunk who walks hugging a girl. However, no one has yet outdone the guy who came to a funeral in a black T-shirt, which had large golden letters – the slogan of the local mobile provider – on his back: Enjoy life!

 

 

Published on: August 24, 2018