Nuts and Cream: Bircher Muesli and Nineteenth Century Dietary Radicalism


For more than 20 years, I travelled extensively around the world and one of the things I looked forward to was staying at hotels I’d normally never be able to afford. There’s something wonderfully indulgent about five-star hotels, whether they be in New York, Hong Kong or Paris, and my first mornings would always follow the same path – trooping off to the hotel dining room with that day’s copy of the Herald Tribune and the heady anticipation of what the breakfast buffet would hold. I’d first check that bircher muesli was available; I considered then, and still do, that a hotel could best be judged by the quality of that one dish – moist, creamy, sweet and welcoming, the perfect introduction to a new destination.

This was especially so in Asian hotels during the 1990s, when the international five-star brands were more often than not staffed by European food and beverage executives, trained in classic traditions by the finest Swiss hotel schools. Even if the eggs were incinerated at blisteringly high temperatures and the “bacon” was beef or turkey, I could generally count on the bircher muesli as authentic.

In recent times, my travel has tailed off but my love of bircher muesli has not. In my local neighbourhood, I’ve found only one café that serves it and, while it’s a fair approximation, it’s not exactly my ideal.

Maximilian Bircher-Benner With A Few Of His Favourite Things

With this in mind, I started fiddling with the numerous recipes available on the Internet. Most create the muesli from scratch, with oats and nuts, then adding grated apple, yoghurt and milk, at which point they often spin wildly off into a galactic black hole of improvisation. It’s not unusual to find such oddities as agave nectar, sunflower seeds and apple slices pan-fried in maple syrup and cinnamon.

I wanted something simpler. I figured there’s no reason I couldn’t start with readily-available pre-mixed supermarket muesli. Through trial and error, mostly error, I’ve devised one that comes pretty close to those wonderful concoctions I remember from my travels. Just how wicked it becomes, calorie-wise, depends on whether you use cream or milk or a combination of both. You can even substitute low-fat or skim milk and the taste will not suffer that much.

Firstly, though, a little background. Hats off to Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, a late 19th century Swiss doctor and early advocate of healthy eating. The basis of his teachings was to avoid meat and concentrate on fruit, vegetables and nuts. Around 1900, at his clinic in Zurich, with the Alps resonating in the background, he mixed together a few of his favourite things and came up with museli.

John Harvey Kellogg Says Nuts To Healthy Living

Interestingly, across the Atlantic, this philosophy was mirrored by John Harvey Kellogg. At his Battle Creek Sanitorium in rural Michigan, Kellogg pushed the boundaries of healthy living way beyond his Seventh-day Adventist adherence (which already renounced alcohol and tobacco) and embraced vegetarianism. A firm believer in the benefits of nuts and whole grains, in the late 1890s he started a company with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. No prizes for guessing where this is going, right? Along the way, Kellogg invented Corn Flakes and no suburban breakfast would ever be the same again.

And while I have Max to thank for my favourite breakfast, I have to admit that Kellogg was a much more interesting individual. He took weird and perfected it in ways that defy definition. As evidence, seek out the 1994 bio-pic, The Road To Wellville, with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg and Dana Carvey as his brother and a supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda.

Kellogg’s overall philosophy was one of moderation and abstinence from all vices, sex included. Self-determination, if I may employ a euphemism, was especially abhorrent; Kellogg considered that such practices led to urinary disease, impotence, epilepsy, cancer, insanity and, eventually, death. These days, he’d probably throw in global warning and Republicanism.

So, keeping in mind the matter of full cream over low fat, what better time to segue to my bircher muesli recipe?

DL’s Bircher Muesli Recipe:

Ingredients

2 cups supermarket muesli (raw, not toasted)

250 mL milk (any type, even low fat or skim, or full cream)

125 mL apple juice

175 mL tub of yoghurt

1 tablespoon honey

½ medium apple, peeled and grated

Method

1/ Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2/ Before serving, the mixture may need a little extra milk. It should be moist but not wet, with a consistency a little on the porridge side.

Words  © David Latta

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A Classic Link To Old-Time Las Vegas: The Dunes, Frederic Apcar and the Casino de Paris


A couple of years ago, I penned an article for Travel + Leisure magazine on one of my favourite subjects, old-time Las Vegas. It revolved around how my interest had developed after acquiring my prized 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and discovering the original owner’s name amongst a mountain of paperwork that came with the car.

The article remains one of my favourites, more so because of the opening line: “It started, as these things so often do, with a cardboard box full of crap.” The editor kept that line in, unmolested by decorum, when many others would have tossed it aside.

The Cadillac, a Detroit steel monster in gleaming Silver Mink paint, measures almost 5.7 metres long, weighs in at just over two tonnes, and has bucket seats and an interior of the most indulgent red leather. It was delivered new to its Las Vegas address in May 1963 and the name listed in the owner’s manual was Frederic Apcar.

For some reason, it took me a while to Google the owner’s name but, when I did, a surprise awaited. Apcar was a legend in Las Vegas, a producer of tits-and-ass showgirl extravaganzas at the famed Dunes Hotel and Casino; in 2006, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Nevada Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame.

The Dunes opened in 1955 on a 35 hectare site at the southern end of the Strip, diagonally across the road from the Flamingo. With 200 rooms and a 28-metre pool, the largest in the country, the hotel was dominated by a 10-metre-tall fibreglass statue of a Middle Eastern Sultan. The Dunes’ initial investors included East Coast Mob money and was later expanded with funds from the Teamsters Union Credit Fund run by Jimmy Hoffa.

In its early years, The Dunes staggered from one misfortune to another but, by the early 60s, was on the rise. General Manager, Major Arteburn Riddle, knowing the value of entertainment in luring gamblers through the doors, hired Apcar to devise an only-in-Vegas drawcard.

Born in Paris, Apcar was a chorus boy in the famed Folies Bergere at the age of 16. By the time he came to Vegas, he was 46 years old and a respected dancer and choreographer. He drew on what he knew – beautiful women, glamorous costumes, naughty-but-nice dance numbers and variety acts. His first production at The Dunes, Viva Le Girls! opened in the Parisian Room Lounge in 1961. With a budget of $US165,000, it became one of the longest-running shows in Vegas.

His ambition, however, didn’t stop there. He negotiated with the owner and producer of the Casino de Paris to license the first official show outside France. It was already synonymous with glamour; Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker had both performed with the Casino de Paris and, in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent would design costumes for the show.

In December 1963, just a few months after Apcar took delivery of my silver Cadillac, the Casino de Paris show opened in a new custom-built theatre at The Dunes. It was an immediate success; by the mid-60s, the production cost $US75,000 a week to run and had a cast of 100 dancers and performers who cycled through 518 costumes, 250 hats and 500 wigs.

Apcar remained producer and director of the Casino de Paris well into the 80s but, as the years progressed, The Dunes had trouble competing with its upstart neighbours. That it occupied such a prime position on the Las Vegas Strip only hastened its demise. Steve Wynn bought the property in 1992 for $US75 million and closed The Dunes the following year. He imploded the high-rise 60s accommodation tower in spectacular style in October that year and began construction of the $US1.6 billion Bellagio.

Apcar lived to witness the changing fortunes of The Dunes and Las Vegas and died in 2008, aged 93.

Words  © David Latta. Photos from Casino de Paris programs from the 1960s from the author’s own collection. Additional information from the excellent www.classiclasvegas.com website.

Nancy Wake – Bravery, Bullets and Bouillabaisse


Years ago, I worked as a wine steward in the dining room of a Milsons Point club, virtually within the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With big windows that looked out across Lavender Bay to the Harbour, it was a popular place with locals and visitors alike. Brett Whiteley lived in one of the old houses just across the road and some of his most famous paintings took in these same views.

Amongst my regular customers was a lovely old couple I knew as the Forwards; John Forward and his wife Nancy. She looked like a grandmother from Central Casting, he a little like Jimmy Edwards. They loved good food, lots of wine and stimulating conversation; they were often the last to leave and Nancy’s booming laugh bounced off the walls like cannon fire.

One day, they asked me to organise the bar for a function at a house on the Upper North Shore. When I arrived, the place was packed. Most of the guests were French and, intriguingly, they were treating Nancy like she was one step down from God. I soon found out why. The occasion was to celebrate the release of Nancy’s autobiography and the vivacious, larger-than-life club regular turned out to be Nancy Wake, war-time heroine, member of the French Resistance and scourge of the Nazis.

Russell Braddon had written a biography about her in the mid-1950s but she was virtually unknown in Australia despite being one of the most highly-decorated women of World War II. The French had awarded her three Croix de guerre as well as making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the British the George Medal and the United States the Medal of Freedom.

Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912 but settled in Sydney with her family at an early age. By her early 20s, she was living in Paris and working as a journalist for the Hearst press. She travelled widely through Europe and saw first-hand the spread of Nazi ideology; she was horrified by the treatment of Jewish residents in Berlin and Vienna.

In 1939, she married French businessman Henri Fiocca and settled in Marseille, where she lived the privileged life of a socialite. With the fall of Paris in 1940, France was split into two zones – the Occupied Zone and the so-called Free Zone in the south governed by a collaborationist regime based in Vichy.

She made friends with many of the Allied POWs who were interned at the harbour-front Fort Saint-Jean and, before long, was acting as a courier and assisting in the organisation of escape routes. She came to the attention of MI9, a department of British military intelligence devoted to assisting prisoners of war. During this time, she helped more than 1,000 Allied personnel escape France.

By late 1942, the entire country was controlled by the Nazis, who were actively seeking a mysterious dark-haired operative of the French Resistance, nicknamed the White Mouse for an almost superhuman ability to escape detection.

By early 1943, however, such extensive resources were being put into capturing the White Mouse that Henri persuaded Nancy it was time to leave France. Although she was arrested on her way to Spain, she managed to escape and made it to London.

What she didn’t know until after the war was that Henri had been arrested by the Gestapo but refused to give away her secrets. He was executed later that year.

Nancy initially attempted to join the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle but instead was recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed by Winston Churchill to finance, equip and train Resistance forces in Europe.

She was a member of F Section under famed spymaster Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Trained in such necessary skills as unarmed combat, silent killing and how to make explosives from common kitchen ingredients, she was parachuted back into France in February 1944. It was her exploits during this period that grew more legendary with each retelling. The truth, she maintained, was more than enough. “I’ve read articles where I led 8,000 men into battle, just like bloody Joan of Arc,” she told me with a hearty laugh.

She was trained to kill and kill she did, with no hesitation or remorse. In one instance, she threw a grenade into a dining room full of Gestapo officers. She organised the supply and equipping of Resistance forces and was often at the forefront of battles with German troops. While she was dedicated and resourceful, she also exercised a fierce sense of humour that earned her enormous respect among the men she led. That she was a women and a foreigner made that regard even more remarkable.

When the Germans were routed from France, and her own war was at an end, she returned to Marseille and discovered the heart-breaking truth about her beloved Henri. As a small measure of comfort, she was reunited with Picon, the wire-haired terrier she’d adopted when she first arrived in Paris.

Nancy eventually returned to Australia and married John Forward, a retired RAF bomber pilot and settled in Sydney. By the time I met her, her fame had receded into an obscure historical cul-de-sac; she was simply Nancy, the hearty, earthy woman who loved a big glass of wine, making jokes at her own expense, and cooking up huge batches of rich saffron-tinged bouillabaisse for her friends.

I knew her for a few more years before she and John moved to Port Macquarie and we lost touch. After John’s death in 1997, she relocated to London where she lived at the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women. Her death, at the age of 98, on 7 August 2011, closed the final chapter on a remarkable life.

Her story was told by Russell Braddon in 1956, by Nancy herself in 1985, and by Peter FitzSimons in 2001. Upcoming is a planned biopic to be directed by Bruce Beresford.

The things you enjoy today are often the result of the influence of others. When I heard of Nancy’s death, I made up a Pernod just the way she first showed me, a generous shot in a tall glass with a full measure of ice and water. As I sipped, I reflected on the stories she told in her self-deprecating but forthright way. And I thought, I bet she’s sought out Hitler in some corner of the afterlife and is devoting a fair proportion of eternity telling him just what she thinks of him.

They don’t make dames like that anymore.

Words  © David Latta

How To Survive The World’s Great Cities


There are a few destinations in this world that it’s no use rolling up to and expecting them to conform to your expectations. They’re just too sprawling, ambitious, multi-faceted and, ultimately, exhausting.

On this list, I’d include New York, Tokyo, London and Paris. Maybe even Los Angeles, although there’s really only parts I visit and I already know them very well indeed.

The world’s great cities can never be fully explored in one visit. Not even several, maybe not ever. They are constantly evolving, changing from visit to visit, always presenting differing tangential aspects like a slowly shifting kaleidoscope. They forever intrigue and spellbind, confound and delight. Visitors can never expect to completely understand them. They are spectres glimpsed fleetingly in your peripheral vision, slipping off into infinity and lost forever.

The first time I visited New York, I had a list of things I wanted to see and do. At the end of a week, I hadn’t explored beyond mid-town. To this day, much of the list remains. There is just too much and too little time. I still haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty although I’ve glimpsed it from all angles with my favourite being from Battery Park. I haven’t explored the boroughs and I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building.

Whenever I’m there, I often revisited the Metropolitan Museum for the recreated Frank Lloyd Wright room from Wayzata, Minnesota; The Paley Center For Media (if I have a spare day) to settle in and watch those obscure television programs I can’t find anywhere else; a martini in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel to relive a North By Northwest moment (overlooking the point that the scene was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage); shopping at Bloomingdale’s (although I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything there; I have more luck at Macy’s), and testing the limits of my baggage allowance at the Strand Book Store.

I’ve moved beyond the disappointment of not ticking off the entire New York list and that’s probably the key component to surviving the world’s great cities. Don’t get too ambitious. It’ll always end in tears before bedtime.

Harry's New York Bar, Paris

I was just as ambitious when I first visited Paris. Again, I had The List; I spent more time on the Metro, criss-crossing the city, than actually experiencing what I wanted. On subsequent trips, it occurred to me that a far more logical way of dealing with Paris was to stay in a different area each time and just explore within that arrondissement.

In the 2nd arrondissement, I’d stay at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, preferably in a room overlooking the Opéra Garnier, which is always worthy of a few idle hours to marvel at the understated decor. It’s a short stroll down the Avenue de l’Opéra to Harry’s New York Bar for le hot dog and a Bloody Mary, which more than a few of those in the know claim was invented right there. Sitting within the cosy wood-panelled rooms, where Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation congregated, it becomes a literary pilgrimage on par with Shakespeare & Co.

In the 6th district, around Saint-Germain, there are so many small hotels with similar charm and pricing, it’s difficult to choose just one. And there’s much to do in the area. An outdoor table at Le Deux Magots, pointedly ignoring the tourists, or a short walk down the Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the jazz clubs or a movie (preferably Woody Allen or Jerry Lewis, in VO). Or the small restaurants that seem to proliferate like lapin between the Boulevard and the Seine, where the mixed-priced menus are very reasonable, if you feel like French onion soup, duck and crème brûlée, as good a meal as any if the fancy takes you. And, afterwards, a browse through the Taschen store on the Rue de Buci.

So the key to survival is simple: don’t even think of compiling The List. Just take your time and enjoy what’s happening around you.

Le Deux Magots

Words and photos © David Latta

A Taste Of The Paris Underground


The French are delightfully perplexing. They turned the cinematic world on its head with the New Wave and then worshiped Jerry Lewis. They are the last word in style yet made sex symbols of Gerard Depardieu, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Gainsbourg. Their tourist attractions are no less fathomable. For every Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, there’s something so completely bizarre that it strains credibility.

Two of my favourites are hidden away but well worth seeking out. The entrance to the Catacombes de Paris is just opposite the Denfert-Rochereau metro station on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.

Above the entrance is a sign that forbiddingly declares “Stop! This Is The Empire of Death”. Visitors must make their way down a narrow spiral staircase to tunnels that snake 20 metres below the city streets.

Getting there early will avoid the crowds that tend to congregate later in the day but being alone in tunnels that extend for some kilometres can be unsettling. The ossuary holds the bones of around five million people, most removed from old Parisian graveyards during the modernization of the city under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century. A large proportion of the relics originated from the Le Cimetière des Innocents in the Les Halles district.

Whether Paris is sweltering in late summer or freezing with the approach of winter, the catacombs maintain a constant temperature of 11° Celcius. The tunnel floor can be wet and uneven so it’s ill-advised to attempt the walk in your favourite Louboutins. The first 15 minutes or so are fascinating, with skulls and bones arranged in extremely creative groupings. After a while, however, it all becomes a little tedious and not even my extreme fear of rats could elicit more than a tinge of unease.

Anybody hoping to snare an authentic souvenir of the catacombs will be disappointed. A security guard at the exit will search visitors’ bags and confiscate anything that should remain underground. Photography, however, is permitted.

My all-time favourite Paris tourist attraction is the Musée des Égouts de Paris, the acclaimed Sewer Museum. The entrance is easy to overlook, next to a small blue kiosk on the left bank of the Seine adjacent to the Pont de l‘Alma.

The sewers of Paris were celebrated in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and the truly miserable musical of the same name, and countless movies about the French Resistance during World War II. Although dating back for centuries, Paris’ modern sewer network is yet another legacy of Baron Haussmann, this time working with visionary engineer Eugéne Belgrand.

The museum is far below ground, built on platforms over a working section of the sewers. It is eye-wateringly realistic and should not be visited immediately after breakfast. The exhibits have explanations in both French and English so visitors are in no doubt of exactly what they are seeing and smelling.

It can be said that the sewer museum is a movement away from the traditional sanitised tourist attraction, providing a glimpse into the inner workings of everyday Parisians. It would be easy to dump on such a concept, to attempt to flush away its philosophical bona fides but the reality is that it’s a breath of (not so) fresh air.

In the 1980s, when negotiations were underway to build Euro Disney outside Paris, there were suggestions that Disney should also take over some of Paris’ most notable tourist attractions. It was only through the protracted protests of French trade unions and leading existentialists that this was avoided.

How the sewer museum would look today in that unlikely event can only be imagined. Perhaps a children’s ride with dancing animatronic figures set in a gleaming porcelain tunnel and a catchy theme song along the lines of “It’s A Small Turd”.

There is, however, a gift shop that has some wonderful souvenirs although, sadly, no snow globes. And, near the exit, there are toilets so that incurable romantics can leave their mark on their favourite city.

For those who always suspected that the French are wonderfully eccentric, there is no greater demonstration.

Words and photos © David Latta

It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish


Welcome to my world.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been a professional traveller for more than 20 years. By professional, I mean I’ve been paid (poorly, as is the way with the Australian travel media) to travel (widely and often).

They have been the best of times and, occasionally, the worst of times. Lots of adventures and even more surprises. The point of this blog is to showcase some of the things that never make it into my articles. It could be said I have wide-ranging interests: film (new and old); books (mainly old); music (don’t get me started); classic cars, particularly Cadillacs; architecture and design of most periods, although I have a fondness for mid-20th century; and the stylish and beautiful in all things.

Quirky and wonderful things catch my eye and make me linger. We all travel for different reasons. I can be in Paris a dozen times and never see the same thing twice, although I always end up scouring the massive antique markets at the end of the Porte de Clignancourt metro line. I’ve never been inside the Louvre but I love the sewer museum at the Quai d’Orsay. One man’s meat, as it were.

I love big cities, whether they be New York, Los Angeles, Cape Town or Shanghai. Scenery tends to drive me spare. I was once in Yellowstone National Park in a freezing drizzle, attempting to spot bear in the far distance. I think I said at the time, only half jokingly, that all the place needed was a Wal-Mart and I’d be happy although I would have settled for a 7-Eleven. Not long after, I was in Spotted Horse. On a good day, it has a population of two although there was no-one around when I arrived so the roadhouse is a place I must return to someday.

Hope you enjoy my blog.

Oh, and by the way, as so many people seem to Google this, if the term It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish seems familiar, it’s certainly not because of the real reason. It’s a song. A show tune, actually. From a musical not many people paid attention to at the time and certainly, outside of Broadway tragics, nobody remembers anymore. It came from Seesaw, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Cy Coleman and book by Michael Bennett. It opened on Broadway in 1973, after a torturous out-of-town try-out that saw the original book thrown out, along with the director and star, Coleman and Fields reworking the musical numbers and Bennett creating a new book with the help of Neil Simon. It was at this rebirth that It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish was added. Interestingly, it was a song that Coleman and Fields had in their bottom drawer from some years, originally intended for an unproduced musical on Eleanor Roosevelt.

Back in the 1970s, I worked at a fashionable nightclub in Sydney that had the most elaborate drag shows. One of the shows concluded with this song and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Words and photos © David Latta