Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

FOOD FOR ART’S SAKE: Eating with the Impressionists


Does a well-fed race produce more geniuses than others?

Lascaux Horses

In celebrating art, the world owes a tremendous debt to France. Once a mecca for Impressionist artists and others, France nurtured both their souls and their bellies. And in France, art goes back a long way, back to the time of Cro-Magnon man who left his indelible marks on the dim damp walls of the caves of Lascaux in the Dordogne area of southwestern France.

The first French painter, Cro-Magnon man, must also have been the first who could discuss food and art in sensible terms and also the first who could choke on his food. Why? With Cro-Magnon man, the larynx enlarged and moved further down in the throat, enabling human speech to develop and precluding the capacity to swallow and breath at the same time. Mealtime became a time to eat more slowly, to savor tastes, and to talk about the bison painting. Who was going to go to find the plants for making just the right color for the horns?

Although the artists who streamed into nineteenth-century Paris no longer had to worry about making their own colors, they continued the Cro-Magnon traditions of eating and talking ART. When they didn’t sell their work, food was less precious than paint. But when, and if, the artists sold their work, they crowded the cafes of Paris, Arles, and other French cities, and then they ate meagerly but well.

Luncheon at Argenteu (Claude Monet)

Of all the artists, the Impressionist artist Monet probably ate the best. His food journals, detailing the foods that passed from his gardens through his kitchen and then to his table, have been published. (See books listed at the end of this article.) He painted his famous haystacks series while he lived amidst his gardens at Giverny, about 60 miles west of Paris. While painting, Monet arose early, at 5 a.m. After eating breakfasts of cheese, omelette fines herbes, sausage, cold meat, toast, marmalade, and tea, he was well-primed for the sunrises over the haystacks and the cold mornings. In the evenings, after the long days of painting, Monet might entertain a few visiting artists friends, perhaps Renoir, Rodin, Sisley, Cezanne, Pisarro, John Singer Sargent, or Mary Cassatt. Seated around his 12-person dining table, Monet and his guests savored roasted beef, braised asparagus, leafy green salads well-peppered with black pepper, large forest mushrooms smothered with fresh garlic and olive oil, and other fresh food.

Still Life with Mackerels, Lemons, and Tomatoes (Vincent Van Gogh, 1886)

In southerly Arles, far from the bone-numbing cold of Monet’s France, Van Gogh painted the vivid colors of the French Provencal countryside and would have starved, since he never sold a painting while he was alive, if his brother Theo had not helped him financially. With Theo’s money, Vincent could eat mullet stewed in red wine or garlicky shrimp in the style of Provence. Van Gogh was no doubt joined at times by Matisse, Renoir, and Cezanne, none of whom could resist the brilliant sun of Provence, the glowing light illuminating the brown earth and blue cloudless sky.

Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes (Paul Cézanne, 1879-80)

But it was in misty, mythical Paris, not Arles, not Giverny, that the lights shone brighter and the elusive smell of success mingled with the cooking odors of hundreds of cafes and bistros. It was in Paris that the Impressionists united to form the Salon des Refusés, exhibiting their work in defiance of the established art world. Plans for the exhibit evolved over glasses of anise-flavored absinthe and plates of potato gratin and grilled trout or a simple seafood quiche. And then the great day came, the catcalls resounding across the pages of Parisian newspapers, but the artists succeed. And became famous. The legends began and it was only a matter of time before a Van Gogh or a Renoir sold for unimaginable sums.

Some of the legends are unimaginable, too, even unbelievable, but the truth is still there:  French culture did much to form the Impressionists, both physically and mentally. Those meager cafe meals eaten in the company of other artists, those sumptuous meals at Giverny, those crisp French loaves and young wines, all gave sustenance … to geniuses.

Women Gathering Mushrooms (Lucien Pissarro, 1893)

Serves 4

1 lb. large mushrooms (stems removed and reserved), sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and mashed
3/4 cup chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet until almost smoking. Throw in the sliced mushroom caps and cook until mushrooms are giving off liquid. Lower the heat.

Meanwhile, while the mushroom caps cook, trim and chop the stems. When the caps are nearly cooked through, toss in the stems, the garlic, and the parsley. Cook for about 2 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Serve with roast chicken or grilled steak.

Serves 4

1 clove garlic, peeled and mashed
4-5 baking potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup grated Swiss cheese
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Rub the inside of a shallow pyrex baking dish (1 1/2 quart size) with the garlic. Discard the garlic. Lightly butter the dish. Put half the potatoes in the dish in a layer, top with half of the cheese, and pour in half the cream. Salt to taste. Repeat the layering once more in the above order.

Bake the potatoes (uncovered) for 1-1 1/2 hours or until potatoes are tender and the top of the dish is golden brown. Serve with a green salad and bread for lunch or a light supper, or serve as a side dish to most meats.

Still Life with Mussels and Shrimp (Vincent van Gogh, 1886)

Serves 4

4 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup brandy
2 lbs. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup dry white wine
Pinch dried thyme leaves or 2 springs fresh
1 bay leaf
3 parsley sprigs
1 2-inch long piece of orange peel
1/2 cup tomato puree, canned or freshly made
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
6 cloves garlic, peeled, mashed, and finely chopped
1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped, for garnish

Fry the onion in the oil in a wide skillet until translucent, add the brandy, let the alcohol cook off for about 2 minutes, and then add the shrimp, white wine, thyme, parsley sprig, bay leaf, orange peel tomato puree, salt, and peppers. Let simmer over low heat for 6-8 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, orange peel, and parsley sprigs. Strain the sauce from the shrimp, place shrimp in a warmed casserole dish in a warm oven.

Cook down the sauce until you have about 1 1/4 cups. Pour it over the warm shrimp and sprinkle the whole dish with a mixture of the chopped garlic and parsley. Serve as an appetizer with lots of crusty bread.

Serves 4-6

1 partially baked 9-inch pastry shell
3 T. minced onion or shallots
4 T. butter
1 1/4 cup shrimp or crab meat, or a mixture of both
Salt to taste
Pinch of white pepper
3 T. Madeira or dry white vermouth
4 eggs
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 T. tomato paste
1/4 t. salt
Pinch of white pepper
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Move rack to upper third of the oven.

Fry the onions in the butter until translucent, add the shrimp/crab, and cook for 1 minute over high heat, stirring constantly. Season with the salt and pepper and add the wine. Cook one more minute. Set aside to cool briefly.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and the cream together with the seasonings and the tomato paste. Stir in the shrimp/crab mixture.

Pour the mixture into the pastry shell and top with the grated cheese. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve with a green salad for lunch or a light supper.

Red Mullets (Claude Monet, 1869)

Serves 6

7 T. olive oil
3 large onions, thinly sliced
2 cups Cabernet Sauvignon
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled and mashed
2 bay leaves
1 t. thyme
2 t. dried savory
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 mullet fillets, skinned
Dried thyme leaves
24 black olives, preferably Nicoise
1/2 cup capers
Chopped parsley for garnish

Heat 3 T. olive oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the onion until transparent. Stir in the wine, cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, reduce heat to simmer, and stir in tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves, savory, thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook sauce, uncovered, for 30 minutes over low heat. Remove bay leaves. Puree the sauce in a blender, food processor, or food mill. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Sprinkle fish lightly with thyme leaves and fry fish in 4 T. olive oil, about 3 minutes per side. While fish is cooking, spread half of the sauce over the bottom of a baking dish. Place fish on top of the sauce, salt and pepper the fish, and top with the rest of the sauce. Bake the fish in the oven for 20 minutes or until fish tests almost done. Sprinkle the fish with the olives and the capers. Cook the fish for 5 more minutes. Place fish on warm serving plates. Garnish with chopped parsley and small cooked new potatoes.

Books about the Artists and Their Food:

Joyes, Claire. Monet’s Table : The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet (1989).

_____. Taste of Giverny (2000).

Leaf, Alexandra. The Impressionists’ Table: Recipes & Gastronomy of 19th-Century France (1994).

Leaf, Alexandra and Leman, Fred. Van Gogh’s Table at the Auberge Ravoux: Recipes From the Artist’s Last Home and Paintings of Cafe Life (2001).

Naudin, Jean-Bernard, Cézanne and the Provencal Table (1995).

Naudin, Jean-Bernard, Charbonnier, Jean-Michel, and Saulnier, Jacqueline. Renoir’s Table: The Art of Living and Dining with One of the World’s Greatest Impressionist Painters (1994).

Todd, Pamela. The Impressionists’ Table: A Celebration of Regional French Food Through the Palettes of the Great Impressionists (1997).

© 2011 C. Bertelsen