In France, a Yearly Feast of Fish

Nanda Gonzague for The New York Times
The St. Pierre statue carried by the water jousters.


SÈTE, France — This Mediterranean port town is famous for its annual Worldwide Festival of electronic music, seven miles of glorious beaches and fish.


Lots of fish.

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Letter from Umbria | A Storied Ceramics Workshop Where Visiting Artists Can Get to Work

Elaine Sciolino
At the Rometti ceramics workshop in Umbria, Jean-Christophe Clair, the factory’s artistic director, works on his “Birili” collection inspired by ancient and primitive shapes.


You won’t find Umbertide, Italy, in most guidebooks. This town in northeast Umbria has little to recommend it: no churches with vibrant frescoes, no hilltop vistas, no Michelin-starred restaurants, not even a first-rate pizzeria. Umbertide is so ordinary, in fact, that “The Companion Guide to Umbria,” the 1969 classic armchair reader on the province, singles it out as the only second-tier town in the region that is not worth even a short visit.


What Umbertide does have going for it is Ceramiche Rometti, a ceramics workshop, showroom, retailer and museum (okay, it’s just several dozen objects displayed behind glass) on the edge of town. Since 1927, Rometti has been turning out fine hand-painted ceramics and sculptures of clay mined from a local quarry that dates back to ancient Rome. Among its collaborators these days are Chantal Thomass, the Parisian queen of lingerie, and Roche Bobois, the high-end French furniture and interior design company. Through the latter, Rometti also has made large vases with designs by the 20th-century artist-writer Jean Cocteau with the authorization of Pierre Bergé, the longtime personal and business partner of Yves Saint Laurent.


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Ode to the Classic Bistro

Ed Alcock
A pair of extra-large organic hard-boiled eggs served with homemade mayonnaise from Bistrot Valois.


PARIS — It is a question I have come to dread: Can you recommend the perfect bistro?


The reason it’s so hard to give my visiting friends a good answer is that the Paris bistro scene is in full transformation. And the trends are moving in contradictory, and worrisome, directions.


On one hand, there’s a lot of really bad bistro food these days: dishes like onion soup and blanquette de veau that are mass-produced at large industrial sites, shipped to kitchens and reheated just before serving. If you’re not careful, you can end up paying serious money for a meal that was vacuum-packed or frozen just a few hours before.


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Capturing the Spirit of the Tattoo

Marc Garanger
The French photographer Marc Garanger’s 1960 portrait of a woman whose village was destroyed during Algeria’s war of independence.


PARIS — Tattoos are beautiful; they are crude. They are declarations of protest, politics, beauty, religion, mourning, hatred or love. They have been used to identify, cure, honor and subjugate those who wear or are forced to wear them.


At the Musée du Quai Branly here, an ambitious new exhibition, “Tattoo” which opened Tuesday and runs through Oct. 18, 2015, grounds the tradition of tattooing in antiquity, follows its myriad expressions around the world and showcases a new generation of artists whose medium happens to be marking human skin.


Tattooing dates back more than 5,000 years. The exhibition notes that the remains of Ötzi, the Neolithic iceman found in the Alps in 1991 was covered with 57 tattoo marks. Two-thousand-year-old mummies discovered in Egypt and Syria carried tattoos of mythical monsters and animals.


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Lingering Power of Hostage Crisis Short-Circuits Iranian Nominee

Associated Press
A day after taking hostages at the United States Embassy in Tehran, Iranian students ripped an American flag in November 1979. The political memory of the 444-day crisis is still powerful.


PARIS — When Iranian militants seized the United States Embassy and took dozens of Americans hostage on an overcast Sunday morning in November 1979, I assumed it was just a brief anti-American sit-in. My main concern, I told my editors at Newsweek, was not how dangerous Tehran would be. It was whether it would still be a story by the time I arrived there from Paris the next day.


I sure got that wrong. The “Iran hostage crisis,” as we called it, lasted 444 days. And as demonstrated by the powerful opposition in Washington last week to Iran’s choice for its next United Nations ambassador, it is not over.


During the crisis, President Jimmy Carter froze Iran’s assets, broke diplomatic relations, changed his re-election strategy and ordered a failed military rescue mission that left eight American servicemen dead. The hostage ordeal helped get Ronald Reagan elected as president.


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Letter from France | A Vegetarian and Gluten-Free Guide to Paris

Gabriela Plump for The New York Times
Pousse-Pousse, founded by Lawrence Aboucaya (right), serves gluten-free and vegan dishes including daily soups and seed crackers.


Vegetarians in France are odd ducks. Culinary deprivation is neither sexy nor patriotic here. Regional specialties like the pulpy oysters of Isigny, the velvety foie gras of Périgord, the textured andouillette sausage of Lyon and the black-and-white Coucou chickens of Rennes are meant to be savored, not censured. And although there is no European consensus on exactly what the word “vegetarian” means, less than 2 percent of the French identify themselves as such (compared with four times as many Britons and Germans). Rare is the French host who asks guests before they come to dinner if they have dietary preferences or restrictions. Explain that you’re a pescatarian, vegan or even gluten-free and you’re likely to be met with confusion, bewilderment and a pile of raw vegetables on your plate.


That said, it’s much easier to dine meat-and-fish-free in Paris than it was a decade ago, when the most you could hope for was brown rice and sautéed vegetables. A slim 2012 book called “Paris Végétarien” lists about 150 restaurants by neighborhood and describes their degree of adherence to fruit-and-vegetable purity. There are vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly blogs; the HappyCow smartphone app searches for vegetarian destinations around the world. In the last year, the French media has been filled with stories about gluten-free eating. (The serious Le Monde describes the approach as essential for preserving the health of gluten-intolerant people; the women’s magazine Femina calls it the newest diet à la mode.)

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France Rallies Around Its Truffles

France Keyser for The New York Times
Visitors sniffing truffles at the Saturday retail and wholesale truffle market in Richerenches, France.


GRIGNAN, France — As the world of French truffles falls into disarray, let’s hear it for the poor man’s truffle of Bourgogne.


Inexpensive truffles from China, odorless and tasteless, are flooding France. Synthetically flavored truffle oil is turning up in more restaurant creations. And the supply of the royal black Périgord truffle, the black diamond of French cuisine, is shrinking.


Enter Didier Chabert, the retired chief executive of his family’s nougat-making empire, who has created a truffle command center at Domaine de Cordis, his country estate and guesthouse here near Avignon, in the south of France.


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Your Imported Beef Is Served

Ed Alcock for The New York Times
Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, a champion for the cause of imported beef, takes down a piece of aged British beef from storage.


PARIS — It’s easy to spend a lot of money here on a mediocre steak.


Just about every Paris bistro offers bavette with shallots, faux filet with frites, rumsteck with Roquefort sauce. Menus often identify the noble bovines that are the sources; most notably, the off-white Charolaise, the brown Limousine and the wheat-hued Blonde d’Aquitaine.


The problem is that much of made-in-France meat isn’t marvelous. So in recent years, a quiet revolution has been underway. Foreign beef — from the United States, South America or other European countries — is invading.


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Letter From France | François Hollande: Casanova or Lout?

Etienne Laurent/European Pressphoto Agency
At the Elysee Palace in Paris on Thursday, French President Francois Hollande (center) gives a warm welcome to King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium.


François Hollande is acting liberated now that he has dismissed his live-in companion, Valérie Trierweiler, and eliminated — Pravda-style — all traces of her as first lady from the official Élysée Palace website. The French president is smiling more, telling colleagues he feels “relieved” that his relationship is over. During a trip to Turkey last week, he bantered with French journalists. The next day he decorated the Turkish chanteuse Candan Ercetin as a knight of Arts and Letters, kissing her on both cheeks before gushing over her interpretation of Edith Piaf songs, including “Non, je ne regrette rien.”


On his visit to the United States that begins on Monday, he hopes to come across as reliably capitalist with American business leaders (even though he is a life-long Socialist) and serenely soigné in a tux at the White House state dinner (even though he will be going sans escort). “He is staging himself as manly,” says Éric Fassin, a sociologist specializing in gender studies. “It’s a new persona. He has stopped trying to be nice.”


For some, the French president’s secret romance with the actress Julie Gayet is a rite of passage that has transformed him into a seducer in the grand tradition of kings and presidents. “Who would have imagined that Hollande was a Casanova?” the former culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand told a Belgian interviewer. “It’s extraordinary, because he doesn’t really have the look; he doesn’t really have the physique. If you were looking for a character to play the role of a total womanizer, you wouldn’t pick a guy who looks like François Hollande.” Mitterrand — whose infamous semi-autobiographical novel “La Mauvaise Vie” (“The Bad Life”) graphically describes, through the guise of his narrator, paying for sex with “boys” in Thailand — could not control his laughter. On a television talk show, the writer Philippe Sollers praised Hollande’s Gallic display of strength and virility in remaking his personal life. “Bravo! The entire world envies us,” he said. “Men from all around the world are jealous.”

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Letter From France | How to Visit Some of Paris’s Finest Museums but Skip the Crowds

Aurélien Mole
Not every museum in Paris is packed. Here, an installation view of “How Can We Know the Dancer From the Dance?” by Philippe Parreno, on display at the Palais de Tokyo as part of his “Anywhere, Anywhere, Out of the World” exhibition.


Paris is home to the finest museums in the world. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most crowded. Nearly four million people head to the Pompidou Center and the Musée d’Orsay each year. The Louvre receives more than twice as many.


My houseguests often return from one of these trio of giants with tales of woe: long lines, crowded corridors and obnoxious elbow-pushers. Then there is the security problem. Organized teams of pickpockets became so aggressive at the Louvre last April that its 200 security guards went on strike for a day, forcing the museum to close.


But there are about 175 museums in Paris, and most offer a stress-free visit. They can be modest, like the two rooms devoted to Edith Piaf in an apartment on the eastern edge of town; they can be grand, like the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, just outside town, which displays 30,000 Gallo-Roman objects in a chateau rebuilt in the 16th century.
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