For this post we are back to France and on to another artist. I love art but if I had to declare my love for one artist in particular it would be Édouard Manet. In my undergraduate course I did my entire postseminar work on his still life painting Fish (which should give you some indication of my love for still life painting) where he took the phrase nature morte (French for still life which translates to dead nature) literally. Within my paper I incorporated other works by Manet including Asparagus and A Bunch of Asparagus.

Édouard Manet, A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880
Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum (Germany)

Manet was an artist bent on changing the established practice of art and artists starting with challenging the specific hierarchy of genres. He often painted his still life paintings on large canvases, a size that was generally reserved for the grand genre, history panting. Traditionally still life painting was a way for an artist to display his mastery of the skill of painting. He (or she) would be challenged to depict all of the textures of the fruit and foodstuffs ranging from crusty bread to slippery fish and the effect of light through a decanter of wine. These paintings were very challenging and Manet went against convention by painting his works with thick unrealistic paint and removing all points of entry into the scene for the viewer. Often plopped in the middle of the canvas with little or no background or perspective these new works by Manet differed from their predecessors greatly.

Édouard Manet, Asparagus, 1880,
oil on canvas, 16 x 21 cm, Musee D’Orsay

A Bunch of Asparagus has the beginnings of the line of a table in the top right corner but this horizon line does not continue across the painting which disorients the perspective. There is no pictorial space in which to place the object and it seems that he painted the asparagus just for the sake of painting. Charles Ephrussi bought the painting, and at the time of purchase paid Manet an extra 200 francs. To thank him, Manet painted Asparagus and sent it to him with a note saying “There was one missing from the bunch I gave you” displaying the wit and irony often found in all of Manet’s work.

Hollandaise sauce is one of the five sauces of the French haute cuisine mother sauce repertoire. The sauce is an emulsion of butter and lemon juice with egg yolks and is the key ingredient in Eggs Benedict. Hollandaise sauce can be tricky to prepare and if made correctly is smooth and creamy. In 1651, Francois Pierre La Varenne described a similar sauce in his cookbook Le Cuisiner Francois: “avec du bon beurre frais, un peu de vinaigre, sel et muscade, et un jaune d’oeuf pour lier la sauce” (“make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce”) (1). With such a long history it is no wonder that this simple sauce can be found in the grandest of restaurants in the Western world.

{Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce}

serves 4

24 asparagus spears
1/3 c hollandaise sauce (recipe below)

Arrange a few spears on each plate and drizzle with the hollandaise sauce while still warm.

{Hollandaise Sauce}

2 egg yolks
2 tsp lemon juice
90 g (3 1/2 oz) unsalted butter, cubed

Wash the asparagus and remove the woody ends. Cook in a pan of salted water for about four minutes or until the spears turn bright green and tender. Drain and rinse under cool water.

To make the sauce, put the egg yolks and lemon juice in a saucepan over low heat. Whisk continuously adding the butter cube by cube until the sauce is thick. Be careful not to overheat or else the eggs will scramble. Season.