Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Visiting Dijon with an old friend

In the fall of 1929, an American graduate student named Al Fisher enrolled at the University of Dijon in France to pursue an advanced degree. Accompanying him was his wife, a California girl named Mary Frances.

Mary Frances wrote her brother David a letter about the city that was to be their home for almost three years:
"I do wish you could see this town. I never did believe those illustrations in books like Grimm's fairy tales and so on, but I do now....All the houses are built right up to the edge of the sidewalks and are from two to five stories tall, and thin - perhaps only 2 rooms wide and a room thick. They are of stone and plaster, and in this town, date from 1400 A.D."
At the center of the town is a large palace, the home of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled the region independently from 937 A.D. until annexed by France in 1477. Today the great, open, semi-circular Place de la Liberation faces the Palace. Modern cafes and fountains grace the renovated place.

Beyond the great open plaza are the narrow streets of the oldest quarter of the city

where the Palace of Justice, the library, and older university buildings are located. Late medieval townhouses present "a continuous blank face of high facades pierced by the big closed arches of the doorways," wrote Mary Frances.

Rue du Petit-Potet

One of these narrow streets was the tiny Rue du Petit-Potet. The Fishers found rooms to rent in this street. They boarded with the Ollangier family, and ate their meals at the family table.

When Mary Frances first saw the house where they would live for two years, she described it this way:

"It was a real Burgundian town house, in two parts, one on the street and the other at the back of a deep narrow courtyard. The entrance to the whole place was, of course, the little door cut in the great double door that once had let carriages into the courtyard."

When we visited Dijon this summer, we stayed in the Rue du Petit Potet at the home of a friend.. This is the entrance to her house - a large double-door opening onto an inner courtyard, with rooms in the surrounding structure. A smaller door within one of the large doors opens for pedestrians.

In our friend's courtyard, tiny wild strawberries grow between the cobbles.

and an apricot tree thrives in the sheltered, cobblestone paved courtyard. The wall of the old medieval house are golden, with lion-carvings around the windows. The room where we stayed is at the back, swathed in vines, with a terrace planted with oleander, roses, and calendula.

Sunday morning, the church bells of Dijon awoke us, tolling as Mary Frances describes in her book:
"All the streets of this old quarter off the place d'Armes were narrow and crooked and teeming with life behind their shuttered windows, and from our rooms on the Rue du Petit Potet we could hear fourteen or more bells ringing from the many small churches and convents."

The Ollangier's house was across the street from our friend's house, but it's unclear to a traveler today exactly which house it was. The Fishers boarded first with the Ollangier family, then with the Ribadout family, who bought the house during their stay. Mary Frances credits her talented landladies' contributions to her gastronomical education. While Al went to the University, Mary Frances took classes at the nearby Ecole des Beaux Artes.

Entryway of the Church of St. Michael

The couple went to cafes in the place de l'Opera, just down from the Church of St. Michael, near the theatre where their landlady, Mme. Ollangier played in the orchestra pit for traveling productions to make a little money. Al wrote while sipping coffee at cafe tables. The couple visited restaurants nearby, most notably Au Trois Faisans, or The Three Pheasants.

Mary Frances went walking in the town with her sister Norah who came to visit from the United States,

"Behind the Ducal Palace [where ] ran the oldest marketing street in town. It was very narrow and crowded and dirty, and it was the most picturesque part of the town, with gabled buildings showing the famous tiled roofs of Burgundy...green and yellow and black and red. And there was the beautiful small place Francois Rude and finally the place where people gathered to see the famous gargoyles and the great clock Jacquemart with its mechanized figures on the facade of the eglise Notre-Dame.

Looking at the facade of Notre Dame church on market day in Dijon

After two years living as boarders, the Fishers rented a flat in a different part of town, a neighborhood where workers and artisans lived, on the Rue Monge, by the Place Emile Zola, upstairs from a pastry shop.

The Rue Monge, near the Place Emile Zola

She wrote of waking in the morning to the sounds in the little place below the windows -

"noise, such energetic, lusty, bustling and stirring noise....First we heard the workers in their hard shoes, then the luckier ones with bicycles, and all the bells ringing; the shop shutters being unhooked and folded back by sleeping apprentices; a great beating of pillows and mattresses, so that now and then brown feathers floated past our windows; and always the clanging of the little trams going up into the center of things..."

In the Rue Monge, Mary Frances would have her own kitchen for the first time in her married life. She soon learned that to cook France, you must go to the market. The great, beautiful steel and glass market, les Halles, designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel himself before the turn of the century, was many blocks away, over by Notre-Dame. Wednesdays and Saturdays were market days, and she soon learned to shop like the other women.

"I learned that les Halles were literally the only place to get fresh vegetables and that two heads of cauliflower and a kilo of potatoes and some endives weighed about forty pounds after I'd spent half an hour walking to market....I learned, with the tiredest feet of my life, that feeding people in a town like Dijon meant walking endless cobbled miles from one little shop to another...butter here, sausage there, bananas someplace again, and rice and sugar and coffee in still other places."

Mary Frances and Al started entertaining friends in their small flat, cooking simple but hearty meals in a tiny kitchen, learning to enjoy food made from fresh, delicious ingredients yet un-hampered by the rigid customs of bourgeouis French domestic cuisine. She describes a dish made from baking cauliflower with cream and grated cheese in a casserole, with salad and bread and fruit to accompany it.

In the narrow Rue de Verrieres, the timbers of one house is decorated with carvings of grapes and snails.

Dijon has been a destination for gourmets seeking fine wine and fine cuisine since the 19th century, and in 1921 Mayor Gaston Gerard launched the Annual Foire Gastronomique - a November event promoting Burgundian foods and wines. By the time the Fishers arrived in Dijon, the fair was a huge success. As poor Americans, they didn't attend the fancy balls and dinners, but they enjoyed the displays, the crowds and the food and wine. On a later visit to the Fair, Mary Frances described the scene as:

"The town was jumping, quasi-hysterical, injected with a mysterious supercharge of medieval pomp and Madison-Avenue-via-Paris commercialism."

We stopped at the Place Francois Rude, where children still ride on a small carousel beside the fountain.

We marveled at the House of the Caryatids, a 16th century house with elaborate carvings.

These buildings, with the color tile roofs characteristic of Burgundian architecture, are in the Place des Cordeliers, a small square at the end of the Rue du Petit Potet.

You can see more of these tiles on the Church of St. Benigne, its soaring spires and steeples rising up from the low houses of the street.

As we walked around town, looking at the old half-timbered houses and sitting at sidewalk cafes, I felt as if Mary Frances were walking right along side me, showing me the sights. If you'd like to read more about M.F.K. Fisher's life in Dijon, read her book, "Long Ago in France."


Kate said...

Marvelous! I always learn so much from reading your posts. Thank you.

Gilly said...

That looks a wonderful town! I would love to have been there with you, but your photos and words are the next best thing - I could almost smell the baking, and the garlic and the fresh vegetables in Les halles!


Nej said...

I love how you told a story of someone else, while using pictures of your own. The pictures themselves are great, but the words you chose to accompany them are perfect! :-)

JCK said...

Wild strawberries betwixt the cobblestones...be still my heart! Catching up on your Paris trip. I'm weeks behind. Sadly. I'm sorry.