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Hidden secrets = magic

"Whoever wishes to keep a secret must hide the fact that he possesses one." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Edouard Vuillard is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Impressionist artists. Well technically post-impressionist, and even more technically a member of the Nablis group. And yet before I started buying Impressionist diaries from The Met I had never heard of him. A few of them, have inspired blog posts. I love them for their mystery, their curious beauty - a beauty which is sometimes almost ugly, and also for all the questions they raise in my head.

And today I find myself doing it again. this was yesterday's painting - Garden at Vaucresson which was painted over a lengthy period - from 1920-1936 - four years before his death.

My first impression was of what I at first thought were birds or butterflies, shining in the sunlight and the dappled light here and there - the bright pink of the lady's kimono like dress, the house at the back of the picture and the writhing leaves and branches. Then I realised that the birds and butterflies were, in fact leaves and flowers - roses in fact.

The most tantalising, and so very Edouard Vuillard thing about it however, was to find in the Met's description of the work, that facing the lady in pink, hidden behind the roses on the left of the fence - also hidden behind all the plants - was another figure, who is apparently Lucy Hessel, the wife of his dealer and also his muse and lover for around 40 years. She is so hidden in fact that one commentator on the picture on The Automat website, who wrote a lengthy commentary about it - the only one I found, missed her altogether and assumes that the lady in pink - Lucy's cousin - is in fact the object of his affection - Lucy. In fact when I read The Met's description and I looked at the picture again I still couldn't see Lucy - I only found her when I found the detail above. And although the lady in pink stands out, shines in fact, she also almost merges with the house behind her - at least in colour.

"They are of a kind, the house and the woman, things to be owned, to be showed off." The Automat

So perhaps not so much a merging, more a reflection. And neither woman's face is anything other than a blur. But then: "I do not paint portraits, I paint people in their surroundings." says Vuillard himself. Or:

"I dream about douard Vuillard’s ability to make figures dissolve into a landscape. His paintings are ambient dreams of metamorphosis, but instead of pushing the human-animal boundary, people become patterns, wallpapers, shadows, plants. The works describe being swallowed into space." Sabrina Tarasoff

More correctly I think, some people are swallowed and merged, others stand out like the pink lady or his mother in that other painting I spoke about earlier this year of his mother and his sister - the sister disappearing into the wallpaper, the mother, in black seated and dominating.

What are we to think of this? Well the relationship with Lucy was a forbidden relationship, in that she was married to his friend, but it does not appear to have been a secret - not even to her husband. Vuillard was besotted apparently and she appears in many of his paintings. His muse - although he still lived with his mother until her death when he was in his 60s. So maybe the fact that she is so completely hidden either shows that she is everything to him - literally everything - or that he knows that their relationship should be hidden away. The photograph above seems to imply that she was not at all hidden away.

Norman Kleebat - an art critic takes a slightly different, even opposing view of this disappearance into the background: "His figures are the equal of any object. They are no more and no less." "Swallowed into space" perhaps. We are all made of stars perhaps.

Whatever the answer might be I am increasingly a fan. I also came across a couple of other arresting comments, which were particularly arresting in that there was no more. "Worth a Thousand Words: Garden at Vaucresson" - was the heading on a page which just consisted of the painting. But no thousand words. And you know I think that says it all really - it is indeed worth a thousand words, but it's so difficult to pin it down into words. So much is there, but so difficult to define.

"Ravenous butterflies" was another on Facebook - set beside an image of the painting although I now realise that the words were simply the name of the Facebook site, although Vuillard seems to crop up a bit. Were those leaves and flowers that I initially thought were butterflies, ravenous? Maybe, now that I look at them again - perhaps they are - mildly threatening like the fence. Fences divide, but this one is so hidden that it doesn't really.

Speaking of ravenous, what has any of this got to do with food? Well nothing. So how can I segue into food?

Secrets and hidden. That's how. The indefinable and secret things that make chefs great and certain dishes taste out of this world.

So I'll begin with a quote from Ottolenghi which relates almost exactly to those hidden things in Vuillard's paintings:

"If you can't taste an ingredient, you have to ask yourself why it is there." Yotam Ottolenghi

Which is particularly relevant to Lucy hidden behind the roses - almost part of the roses in the garden. Why is she there if she is so hidden? As to ingredients in food to be honest I'm not sure I'm totally in agreement with Ottolenghi, because sometimes the thing that makes a particular dish so great is indefinable. A taste that you can't quite name. You know that there is something there but you can't name it. Particular true of wine of course. All that talk of fruits, and leather, and cat's piss ... Or perhaps it's just a magical combination of non secretive things. Things that play off each other to make the dish special.

The Guardian has a series of brief articles called My Secret Ingredient in which chefs and recipe writers - well foodies in general - talk about their secret ingredient - which of course is then no longer secret. Well it's a theme for a journalist to play with is it not? Who knows whether these are really their secret ingredients. Maybe the word 'favourite' is better than secret. Maybe they actually have a secret ingredient or ingredients, that they will never reveal - or maybe the secret is different for every dish. Surely it is in fact? Surely they don't have one secret ingredient that they use in everything - although I have seen salt mentioned in this context - and that is, of course, ubiquitous.

Here's an example from Marcus Wareing - stock cubes:

"If you make a bolognese, chilli, curry or stew and it seems a bit bland, grab a stock cube and sprinkle it in at the end. It transforms it. It’s like an adrenaline rush – a shot of something. ...

I use them as a rub. Flake stock cubes into a bowl, add some spices, then rub it over chicken drumsticks or pork chops. Leave to marinate, then gently roast them. That’s why I prefer the old-school cubes – you can’t do that with the little jelly pods you need to dilute with water."

Mind you - "add some spices" - there's the secret ingredient. He's not telling is he? Nevertheless they're useful little articles, particularly when they pick something either completely unheard of like gula melaka or something weird like pickled walnuts.

Then there are the secret ingredients in famous restaurant signature dishes. Is a great chef really going to tell everyone how to make his most famous dish? Well maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe they will when they no longer make it. They certainly say they are sharing.

"If you have ever tried to re-create a restaurant dish at home, you will almost certainly have been perplexed by the experience. No matter how much care and attention you give to your version, something seems to be missing when you tuck in. What are chefs doing differently?" Stuart Heritage

It could just as likely be something the chef does, as what he puts into it. He or she almost certainly takes more care, and almost certainly spends more on the ingredients. I doubt they buy them in Coles or Woollies. In my case the secret ingredient that I miss out is patience. I am not into stirring things for too long. Which is why my jam and marmalade don't always set enough and David has to give them another burst in the microwave. I just get fed up with waiting.

Or is there really some secret ingredient - hidden so that you can't really taste it? As in this definition of secret ingredient from Urban Dictionary:

"The part of the recipe that is protected by lock and key so no one will copy the success of such a perfect concoction. Usually the SECRET INGREDIENT is what distinguishes the original article from phony wannabes, look-alikes and knock-offs similarly to the effect of "special sauce". Bongo Cholomongo/Urban Dictionary

Which especially applies to things like KFC and HP sauce. Commercial products, protected by patents and copyrights and trademarks. 'Spices' or 'Herbs' covers a multitude of things, not to mention all those added chemicals, and even though the ingredients are listed on the package they don't really give you quantities - just percentages. Restaurants simply don't have to say what's in their food. Well I imagine there might be some forbidden things by law - horsemeat for example, but really it's all very secretive. Those menu descriptions don't tell you everything.

The secret ingredients of chefs - the indefinable, indescribable thing, is the same thing that artists, indeed all creators of any kind have - just a magic touch which is a combination of ideas, ingredients/materials, skill and technique and just - well magic. My hairdresser says his wife - also a hairdresser, has the magic in her fingers. He has to work at it - although he has magic with colour and hard work has made him pretty skilled too. So maybe we all have magic - the secret ingredient somewhere, or maybe if we work hard enough we can get it.

They say the secret ingredient is love which is a bit sickly sentimental I think. Maybe it's passion. Maybe it's just something you are born with. Magic.



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