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:

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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!

Life can be quite lovely

Gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris -  Crumbs de Vie

The ever-watching gargoyles of Notre Dame Cathedral

Paris held a chilly glint as I wandered the narrow alleys of the Marais. Perhaps because the cold winter winds have finally begun to whip around the city’s tight corners, or because the once festive Christmas decorations wait unlit to be removed from their perches, or because the city seems a bit empty without its inhabitants, many of whom are nestled in their country homes for the holidays. But perhaps this glint is instead due to the realization that I’ll be leaving Paris in just a month and the inevitable reflection that accompanies the start of a new year.

So reflect we shall. 2013 has been a year filled with both familiar comforts and new adventures. My family has grown even closer despite our physical distance. There were countless bouts of laughter and reflective conversations with old cohorts. My long-time goal of living in Paris was realized and accompanied with delightful new friends and delicious new food. While three months ago, I could stammer through only a few sentences in French, I’ve just returned from my Christmas holiday, having spoken only French for three days. I’ve biked through glaciers with my sister, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with my parents, eaten scones, ice cream sandwiches, and far too many cupcakes with friends, sung at Carnegie Hall and with Andrea Bocelli, lunched with one of my real-life inspirations, the Countess of Romanones, and truly enjoyed my work and coworkers. Certainly, I have much to be grateful for.

Locks on the Pont de l'Archevêché, Paris - Crumbs de Vie

Locks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

So after watching the sun set over Paris with the gargoyles of Notre Dame, I fastened my own lock to the Pont de l’Archevêché as a memory of my time in Paris and walked home along the Quai de la Seine, listening to the lapping waves of the river on its banks. I was reminded of the words a wise friend had told me the day before, “When you pay attention, life can be quite lovely.” How true, indeed. Here’s to 2014!

Quai de la Seine, Paris - Crumbs de Vie

A view of the Quai de la Seine

The Best Baked Good in Paris

Baked Goods at Vandermeersch Bakery, Paris - Crumbs de Vie

Pastries at Pâtisserie Vandermeersch in Paris

My most important mission while in Paris? Find the best baked good. This all-consuming mission has led me to pâtisserie after pâtisserie after pâtisserie. I’ve read articles, sifted through travel books, and asked the locals. Then I stumbled across a blog post by the famous pastry chef and reliable source, David Lebovitz, in which he claims that the Vandermeersch kouglof is not only one of the best baked goods in Paris but, “one of the all-time best things I’ve ever eaten, anywhere.” Well then. Having some sense, I hopped on the subway, tuned into my longest Christmas carol playlist, and ventured across Paris to the Pâtisserie Vandermeersch to put David Lebovitz and this kouglof to the test.

The bakery was buzzing with Saturday morning excitement. Strapping young lads hopped off their vespas to buy the day’s baguettes, inquisitive old men peered through the brightly lit shop window, and the salesladies within twirled about wrapping up little packages of pastries and counting change. I stepped into the shop and my eyes quickly alit on a happy pile of kouglofs in the far corner of the case. I chirped out, “Deux kouglofs, s’il vous plaît!” (never order just one pastry), and the nearest saleslady quickly slipped two of the pastries into a brown parchment bag, which she spun closed in typical Parisian fashion.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont, Paris - Crumbs de Vie

A view of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

A believer in suspense, I tucked the package safely in my purse and hiked over to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a lovely garden sculpted from an old quarry. The whimsical park is situated steeply on what can only be called a mountain, for by the time I reached the top I was entirely out of breath, certainly due to the added weight of the two pastries in my bag. Solving that problem, I settled myself on a bench with a lovely view and took my first bite of this famous kouglof. It was delicious. It was cakey, yet flakey. Sweet, but not too sweet. Delicate and moist, but with a nice crunch from the sugar coated exterior. Flavored with orange and raisins, yet not overtly so. It was simple, yet positively extravagant.

Vandermeersch Kouglof, Paris - Crumbs de Vie

The best baked good in Paris: kouglof from Pâtisserie Vandermeersch

By the time I finished, I was covered in sugar and a nearby crow was eyeing me unnervingly. So, comforted by the fact that I had another pastry in my bag, (never order just one pastry) I ventured to my last stop of the day, Galeries Lafayette, to see this year’s Christmas display. I squirmed my way through the sea of last minute Christmas shoppers and was rewarded with a jaw-dropping view of the beautiful center gallery, which was bringing smiles to the faces of both children and adults alike.

To conclude, what have we learned? Never buy just one pastry! You never know if you’re about to buy the best baked good in Paris. David Lebovitz, I concur.

Galleries Lafayette at Christmas - Crumbs de Vie

Galeries Lafayette at Christmas

A French Christmas Market

French Christmas Market - CrumbsdeVie

French Christmas Trees

It’s been quite some time since my last entry and we have a lot to catch up on: lunching with countesses, oven-less Thanksgiving, castles galore! Indeed, there are many posts to come. But first, I must share with you a tale from yesterday. I feel I owe you a warning in case you ever find yourself at a French Christmas market.

I spent yesterday working in my apartment with the curtains drawn, only to find that by the time I finished, the sun had already set. Determined to leave my couch, I took myself on a walk to the nearby Christmas market where I wandered through the warmly lit stalls, surrounded by overjoyed children and vendors selling handmade ornaments. Although the trees were a tad smaller, the Christmas lights glimmered not with a golden glow but with a bright blue tint, and the Santa was certainly less plump, I concluded that French Christmas markets live up to the joy of their American counterparts, perhaps with just a bit more angst.

But as I stood admiring the seasonal baked goods of a particularly jolly boulanger, I noticed that the odd music drifting through the market was getting closer. Naturally, upon hearing such a clatter, I turned to see what was the matter, only to find that I was within an arm’s reach of my worst nightmare: dancing mimes on stilts.

Suppressing a shriek of terror and nearly knocking over a stall in my clambering backwards, I ran from the most unsettling thing I have ever seen: three winged mimes with white painted faces swaying on stilts to the eery mechanical music of a sound system pedaled along by a fourth swaying mime. From my pitiful hiding spot behind a scraggly French Christmas tree (American Christmas trees are much better hiding spots) I marveled at the fact that the nearby Parisians seemed entertained by this sight and regained enough good sense to whip out my camera. So here you have it, a French Christmas market complete with dancing mimes on stilts. You have been warned:

Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel at dusk

Mont Saint-Michel at dusk

I recently spent a weekend with friends exploring the French region of Brittany, home to the ancient castle of Mont Saint-Michel. After a leisurely drive through rolling French countryside dotted with sheep and stone farmhouses, the castle loomed abruptly on the horizon, as if dropped out of a fairytale. Dating back to the sixth century, this ancient abbey and fortress is perched atop an island and accessible only by a single road, which winds towards the fortress walls through shifting sandbanks and chilly tide pools.

Town around Mont Saint-Michel at dusk

The winding streets inside the walls of Mont Saint-Michel

You enter through a drawbridge and weave through the narrow streets and steps of the castle’s village. The houses are crooked from having stood so long and every turn offers a damp view of a cobbled alley, tiny window, or thatched roof. Having passed the busy shops and attractions, you climb the last flights of steps to the nave of the castle’s church, where softly tinted windows lend the space a pale glow. You step out onto the abbey’s balcony and are whipped by the strong winds of the Atlantic ocean. Looking out at the awe-inspiring views, you understand why this was once known as the end of the world.

The end of the world: view from Month Saint-Michel

What was once known as the end of the world

As we left, we stopped at the Biscuiterie de la Baie du Mont Saint-Michel to pick up several packets of the cookies for which the region is known. These cookies are crumbly bits of heaven and made from the region’s specialty: salted butter. Because of Normandy and Brittany’s proximity to the sea, the regional cows and sheep graze on salted grass. And unlike many regions in France, these farmers transform this salted milk into butter rather than cheese. A glorious occurrence for all.

La Chapelle-Saint-Aubert, Mont-St-Michel

La Chapelle-Saint-Aubert at Mont Saint-Michel

Le Salon du Chocolat

Chocolate at Le Salon du Chocolat, Paris

Chocolate at Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris

The Salon du Chocolat, one of the world’s most famous chocolate expositions, recently came to Paris. Rest assured, yours truly would not miss such an occasion. With more than 250 chocolate vendors and 25,000 attendees, the Salon du Chocolat is a delectable wonderland filled with cases of exotic candies, towers of colorful macarons, stacks of sticky nougat, elegant chocolate sculpture demos, vibrant cultural dance showcases, and even a luxurious chocolate fashion show. But most importantly, the Salon du Chocolat is a wonderland filled with… free samples!

Salon du Chocolat Map, Paris

This is just the first floor!

However, due to the aforementioned 250 chocolate vendors and 25,000 attendees, the Salon du Chocolat requires focus. Without a strategy, you could easily end up overwrought and spinning in circles, clutching a map and laden down with 20 pounds of expensive chocolate. Thus, I offer up my top ten tips on how to get the most [free samples] out of your visit to the Salon du Chocolat:

  1. Don’t spend too long at the big brand name booths. Their showy displays are gorgeous and entirely tempting, but linger as you might, there will be no free samples. Take your “I-was-here” photo and move on.
  2. Similarly, be cautious around the booths that display only pre-wrapped chocolate bars and delectibilities. While these products are most certainly delicious, there are no free samples. Continue on your way until you find a booth with mountains of unwrapped chocolate bricks. These are the vendors that will chisel off a corner for you.
  3. If you don’t speak French, it’s good to know that “puis-je essayer…” means “can I try…” and seems to work well when stammered with a look of complete innocence and naiveté.
  4. There is always one vendor at each booth who is holding out a tray of samples while talking to a potential customer. Swoop in and snag one of these samples without fear of the vendor striking up a conversation with you in French. Long arms are useful here.
  5. Carry a notebook and pen with you. Pick your vendor of choice and pause next to their booth with a discerning look in your eye. Glance at their logo and then scribble something in your notebook (I prefer a nice doodle). The vendor will think you are a critic and free samples will pour into your hand.
  6. Move past the cookware, bakeware, and jewelry booths. Shop later: you’re on a mission!
  7. If you have access to small children, bring them! Vendors think it’s adorable when a small child snags a fistful of chocolate samples. I found that their reaction is different when an adult does the same. Clearly, there is some age discrimination happening here.
  8. Attend a live cooking demo and sit in the front row. The chefs will bring out surprise trays of their creations, but only enough for the first row. Children receive preferential treatment here, as well. See Tip #7.
  9. Consider going later in the day when the crowds have started to thin. A vendor’s chocolate chunk sample size corresponds negatively with their stress level.
  10. Bring crackers and a bottle of water. If you implement the above tips correctly, you’ll have a sugar high in no time and be in desperate need of some non-chocolate based sustenance. The sandwich lines are hours long and will suck up precious free sample time. Come prepared.

And that, my friends, is how you master the Salon du Chocolat! Take in the delightful energy of the show around you as the scent of cocoa powder wafts through the room and smiles light up the faces of both vendors and attendees alike. I can think of no common denominator loved more dearly around the world than chocolate! Coming soon to a city near you!

Chocolate Fashion Show at Le Salon du Chocolat, Paris

Chocolate Fashion Show at Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris

Nougat at Le Salon du Chocolat, Paris

Nougat at Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris

Fall has come to Paris

La fontaine Médicis in Jardin du Luxembourg

La fontaine Médicis in Jardin du Luxembourg

Fall has come to Paris. The air is brisk and sweet with the scent of fallen leaves and the city basks in a golden glow. The ice cream flavors at Berthillon taste of autumn and fallen leaves whip poetically around the windows of Shakespeare and Company, Paris’ oldest English bookshop.

The city beckoned, so after devouring my Caramel Beurre Salé ice cream cone and passing an hour carefully pulling new books from the hidden nooks and crannies of Shakespeare and Company, I headed to one of Paris’ most well known parks, Le Jardin de Luxembourg. I strolled past the large Fontaine de l’Observatoire, where children steered their toy sailboats through a floating maze of leaves, and found a chair beneath an orange canopy of fall foliage. I sat and read while watching well-dressed Parisian mothers wheel their babies about in high-tech strollers and Parisian fathers wrangle excited children who were waiting in line for one of the park’s pony rides.

Reading in Jardin de Luxembourg

Reading in Jardin du Luxembourg

After meeting briefly with friends, I headed to Notre Dame Cathedral for an evening mass. Storm clouds had gathered above Paris and despite hundreds of visitors, the cathedral was quiet. The stained glass windows were dark and thunder boomed outside, echoing through the arched dome and mixing with the deep strains of the organ. It had rained, and as I walked to the Metro, the city was clean and refreshed. A brisk breeze swirled through the dark streets and Parisians hurried to the comfort of their warmly lit homes. Yes, fall has come to Paris.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris at night

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris at night