Lunch with the Countess

La Condesa de Romanones | Crumbs de Vie

La Condesa de Romanones and I in her home in Madrid

Life can be unexpected. When young Aline Griffith, born in 1923, was growing up in upstate New York, she longed to travel the world as a journalist. Little did she know that by 1947 at the age of 24, she would be working as an American spy in Spain and married to a count from one of the country’s oldest and most powerful families. Many years later, she would be sitting in her dining room eating chocolate mousse and whipped cream with me. And so my story begins.

I stood perplexed at the closed gate, debating whether the only visible button was a doorbell or an alarm. As I reached hesitantly to flip the switch, a voice called out from behind me, “you must be here for lunch!” and I spun to see la Condesa de Romanones, a woman I knew only from her books, walking briskly down the street and not 10 feet away, a black wide-brimmed hat pulled low over one eye. Spies can be stealthy.

After exchanging pleasantries, the Countess led us through the gate and up a flight of outdoor stairs to the house. As I stepped from the lush patio through the large front door, my eyes danced about the room before me, from the mirrored entryway where the Countess adjusted her perfectly coiffed hair, to the exquisite porcelain vases perched on polished wooden pedestals, to the wall covered from floor to ceiling in shelves of neatly stacked leather bound books. We stepped into the living room and settled ourselves on gilded settees among a lifetime’s collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and rugs that would rival any museum exhibit.

Our conversation quickly shifted to the Countess’ lifelong career as an American spy. She had been working as a model in New York City in 1943 when she was recruited by the OSS from over 200 women to be a secret agent. At only 20 years old, the Countess was sent for training at “The Farm” outside of Washington D.C. where she learned to live without an identity, pick locks, kill silently with a knife, and speak in code. She was soon sent to Madrid, with a mission of infiltrating high society and gaining access to a network of distinguished friends from whom she could gather critical information about the war. While there was a strong culture shock in moving from the most advanced nation on the planet to one where horse-drawn carriages stood in place of taxis, the Countess fell in love with Spain, not to mention a count, and would continue her undercover work in the country for more than 30 years.

Stepping down into the latticed dining room, where the Countess has hosted such friends as Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Henry Kissinger, we sat at a small round table overlooking the enclosed pool and discussed the restoration of La Pascualete, a 13th century Romanones family estate in southern Spain. The Countess spent years personally renovating the once forgotten property and is now the proud owner of a historic palace with a pool, airport, golf course, and most importantly, world-famous cheese. And because restoring a 13th century estate wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Countess studied paleography and spent several years reading ancient documents and piecing together the history of her prestigious family as far back as 1232, uncovering stories of revenge, loyalty, religion, and war. Certainly, the Countess has secured a place for herself in the illustrious history of the Romanones name.

While I could have questioned the Countess for hours about her adventures, our lunch drew to a close. We walked back to the entryway of her home, pausing to take a photo in front of the Goya painting hanging in her living room. She kindly signed and presented me with a copy of The History of Pascualete and urged me to return to Madrid, once again impressing me with her generosity. We said our goodbyes and parted ways, she to dress for a dinner with several foreign diplomats and I to mentally replay the wonderful afternoon that I won’t soon forget.

La Condesa de Romanones is an inspiration: as a government agent who helped saved countless American lives, as a Spanish grandee who has uncovered hundreds of years of history for her adopted country, as an international jet setter who has improved relations between the United States and Spain, as a mother and grandmother who has raised an impressive family, as an author who has amazed and inspired readers around the world, and as a woman who accomplished these achievements in a time and place where women were expected to do little besides dress well. They say that you should never meet your heroes, because they will never live up to your expectations. I’m pleased to report that that’s not true.

No one tells the Countess’ stories better than she. I strongly recommend that everyone read these remarkable books:

  • The History of Pascualete (1963)
  • The Earth Rests Lightly (1964)
  • An American in Spain (1980)
  • The Spy Wore Red (1988)
  • The Spy Went Dancing (1991)
  • The Spy Wore Silk (1991)
  • The Well-Mannered Assassin (1994)
  • El Fin de una Era (2010)

Learn more about La Condesa de Romanones at the links below:

The Best Crêpes in Paris

Crêperie Josselin, Paris | Crumbs de Vie

Crêperie Josselin in Paris

Le crêpe: One of the great French creations. These thin, crispy-edged, buttery pancakes are filled with everything from ham and eggs to caramel and apples, and can be bought from both colorful street stands and snug sit-down cafés. You can order a galette, (a savory crêpe made with buckwheat flour) or a crêpe, (a sweet crêpe made with wheat flour). They might be flambéed, à la glace, doubled layered, single layered, folded in squares, or folded in triangles, but they are always delicious. And of the crêpes I’ve had in Paris, two stand out as my favorites:

Crêperie Bretonne Fleurie
67, rue de Charonne

Galette at Crêperie Bretonne Fleurie, Paris | Crumbs de Vie

A galette at Crêperie Bretonne Fleurie

The full name of this café is La Crêperie Bretonne Fleurie de l’épouse du Marin, which translates as “flower-filled Breton crêperie run by a sailor’s wife,” so it certainly wins as the best-named crêperie. Leaving the noisy Place de la Bastille behind, you head down the narrow rue de Charonne until you reach the bright blue storefront and worn wooden booths of Crêperie Bretonne Fleurie. While you wait for your order, you can pass the time by photographing the white and red porcelain coffee cups on the table, because then you’ll have your camera ready for when these crêpes arrive. Folded in squares, these photogenic crêpes have a little opening in the center from which the inner ingredients peek out. I ordered a ham and egg galette and a caramel beurre salé crêpe and all was right in the world.

Crêperie de Josselin
67, rue du Montparnasse

Galette at Crêperie Josselin, Paris | Crumbs de Vie

A galette at Crêperie de Josselin

This café is tucked away on rue du Montparnasse, a narrow street crowded on each side with bustling crêperies. Small café tables line the sidewalk and brightly colored napkins flutter in the wind as you make your way through the wafting scent of butter to Crêperie de Josselin. You must complete a feat of gymnastics to squeeze into your seat, but as your crêpe is placed on the table in front of you, all is forgotten. Crêperie de Josselin is famous for its crispy, double layered pancakes, which make the galette just a bit thicker than the competition. I ordered a ham, egg, cheese, and onion galette as well as a homemade toffee-filled crêpe with vanilla ice cream. Très bien!

Oven-less Thanksgiving

Oven-less Thanksgiving, Paris | Crumbs de Vie

An oven-less Thanksgiving dinner

When I first moved into my lovely and very typical Parisian apartment, my first worry wasn’t that there was no bed, or that there were no shower doors, or that the television seemed to be in black and white. My first worry was, “how on Earth are we going to make Thanksgiving dinner without an oven?” You see, upon hearing that I would be in Paris for the holidays, two of my dear friends eagerly agreed to come celebrate Thanksgiving in the City of Light. Facing dire adversity and several naysayers, we boldly stepped forth, determined to conquer a traditional American dinner in a country with no turkeys, a metric system, curious can openers, and oven-less apartments. Here, my friends, is the perfect oven-less Thanksgiving menu:

  • Mashed potatoes with salted butter and cream
  • Whipped sweet potatoes with marshmallows and brown sugar crumbles
  • Sautéed garlic green beans and broccoli florets
  • Roasted sweet corn with salted butter
  • Whole cranberry sauce
  • Stuffing with sliced green beans, onions, and carrots
  • Baguettes & French wine (our Parisian twist)
  • A combination no-bake pecan and pumpkin pie

November turkeys are nearly impossible to find in Paris, as they are all being saved for French Christmas dinners. So forgoing a main course, we had a Thanksgiving dinner of side dishes. My friends smuggled in cranberry sauce and and stuffing from the United States and made a quick visit to Thanksgiving, an expat store that carries a variety of American grocery store staples. We even managed to make a no-bake pecan pie and pumpkin pie. You simply can’t have Thanksgiving without pie. As it turns out, you can end Thanksgiving dinner just as stuffed and sleepy and happy in France as you can in the United States. A very belated happy Thanksgiving to all!