Nov 22, 2014

Of Checks & Chips: Etorki


On the one hand, France seems ahead of the game: they've had chips in their credit cards for years. Except, of course, that they're not credit cards. They're debit cards. After they insert the card, you have to enter the four-digit code. That's easy enough to do, because the credit, er I mean, debit card transaction takes place at your table in a portable machine, which is much safer because your card never leaves your sight. When will the US adopt this system?

Nov 20, 2014

Long Live the King!: Le Chouan


In CM2 -- 5th grade, that is -- Gigi's teacher was talking with the class about government. One of Gigi's classmates contributed, in all sincerity, "I want the King to come back..." Pregnant pause in the classroom..."That way, my family would be nobility again."

Nov 18, 2014

To End All Cheese Platters: Chèvre


It's the platter to end all cheese platters -- except of course that it's not. Today I am celebrating (drumroll, please) my 365th cheese! I've totaled 366 postings -- 365 cheese and 1 butter, and I've certainly learned a lot more about France and French cheeses than I expected. Though I'll be continuing my Year in Fromage even after my year is up, I feel this is the day to answer an oft-asked question: What cheeses would I choose for my fantasy cheese platter?

Nov 17, 2014

Not So Sincerely Signing Off: Sancerrois


Dear Readers,

Given that this is my last language lundi (Monday) of the official Year in Fromage, I always planned to sign off with a story on signing off. Yet it turns out I'm not signing off on this project quite yet. It also turns out to be a slightly ominous-sounding coincidence since, as you read this, I will be unconscious and under the knife. Don't worry, I'm not signing off; just think of it as ironic, dark humor.

Please want, dear Reader, to accept this expression of my most sincere sentiments.

In English, you certainly realize how ridiculous that last sentence sounds, but that is the approximate sign-off of any formal French letter. Here are just a few closing remarks I've received recently, mostly in letters from the girls' schools, with their far-too-literal translations:
  • Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, Madame, l'expression de notre considération distinguée = Want to accept, Monsieur, Madame, the expression of our distinguished consideration
  • Dans l'attente de votre réponse soyez sure, Madame, de mon entière considération = In awaiting your response, be sure, Madame, of my entire consideration
Other variations:
  • Veuillez agréer, Monsieur/ Madame, l’assurance de mes sentiments les plus distingués = Want to accept, Monsieur/ Madame, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments
  • Veuillez croire, Monsieur/ Madame, en nos salutations les meilleures = Want to believe, Monsieur/ Madame, in our best wishes
  • Veuillez accepter, Monsieur/ Madame, l'expression de mes sentiments les plus dévoués = Want to accept, Monsieur/ Madame, the expression of my most devoted sentiments 
Now if you don't want to command them "You must want to accept this! Believe this!" You can beg them instead.

Je vous prie d'agréer mes sincères salutations = I beg you to accept my sincere salutations
Je vous prie d’agréer mes sentiments les meilleurs = I beg you to accept my best wishes
Je vous prie d’agréer l’assurance de mes respectueuses salutations = I beg you to accept the assurance of my respectful salutations

and my favorite:

Je vous prie de bien vouloir recevoir, Monsieur / Madame, l’expression de mes sentiments les plus distingués = I beg you to very much want to receive, Monsieur/ Madame, the expression of my most distinguished sentiments

If you imagine them being signed with a fancy feather pen, it starts to make some historical sense. There are a few, simpler, more modern sign-offs that are still appropriate for business letters, but they are still notably less formal (you could imagine writing these with a ballpoint...). For simplicity, you can go with:

Cordialement (or Bien cordialement) = Cordially (or Very cordially)
Merci d'avance = Thanks in advance
Amicalement = Amicably
Amitiés = Friendly feelings
Chaleureusement = Warmly
Sincères salutations = Sincere wishes 

Even less formal:
A très bientôt = Until very soon
Bien à vous = Best wishes

And the least formal, most common among friends:

A plus = Till soon! (See you soon, Write you soon, etc)
Je t’embrasse bien fort = I hug you hard
Bisous = Kisses
Bises = Kisses

Since we are in France, kisses are not reserved just for romantic letters. You can kiss your friends on the cheeks here -- men and women -- so why not sign off that way?

I have to say that I am just culturally incapable of signing a letter, no matter how formal the situation, with anything as fancy as "Veuillez croire, Madame" or "Je vous prie..." I figure, they know full well I'm not a French speaker by the correspondence itself, which is low in classic finesse and high in American directness, so I usually go with a simple "Merci beaucoup" which is neither correct nor done -- except by me.
In Nov. 2012, after Obama's reelection, President Hollande amused and embarrassed the French when he posted a congratulatory letter on the Elysée (French equivalent of the White House) Facebook page, on which he signed off "Friendly," almost certainly meaning it as a direct translation of "Amicalement" or "Amitiés".
 image from Elysee Facebook page

So, Dear Readers, please want to believe me when I express to you my most distinguished and sincere sentiments in the joyful anticipation of continuing to share with you my stories, even when I myself flatly refuse to apply the lessons I am sharing and instead not so sincerely sign off my letters...

All the best,

THE CHEESE: Sancerrois

Sancerrois (pronounced "sun-sare-WA") is a raw, farmhouse goats' milk cheese in the classic style of the Berry region (historic name for a region including today's Cher and l'Indre departments near the Loire. Since the Arab invasion in the 700s, raising goats and making goat cheese has been a local specialty. This hockey puck of goat cheese, sometimes (more rarely) also called Le Berrichon, is like a large version of a Crottin de Chavignol and Crottin du Berry. But because it's bigger, the inside is creamier.

It's a lactic cheese, mellow but with a slight yogurt tang and subtle hints of pepper, especially in the more aged, harder discs. The cheese can be aged from 2-5 weeks, made between January through September, so there can be quite a difference in potency.
farmhouse, raw goat, from Berry


I get my letter sign-offs wrong, and -- frankly -- the translations I've given you above are too literal and, therefore, slightly off, too. Mostly, each and every sign off, no matter what the word, is just a very flowery, overly-complicated way of saying "Sincerely" which -- in a just-off way -- sounds very much like "Sancerrois".

Nov 16, 2014

Reflecting on Paris: Clacbitou


I want to tell you something that may surprise you: I wasn't always one of those people who was fanatic about Paris and waxed rhapsodic about the city, even when we planned to move here. For me, appreciation and affection for the city and for life in France is something that has built gradually. But now that I love it wholeheartedly, I thought it was high time for me to reflect on the city's reflection.

Nov 15, 2014

There's No Substitute: Vieille Tomme de Chèvre


Remember how your class tortured, disrespected, or generally ignored the substitute teachers? No need for that in France, because in general the kids don't have substitute teachers. No teacher? No class.

This is only true for middle and high school kids, who have multiple subjects and teachers per day. The primary school kids are still given substitutes. But the older kids simply miss out. Gigi missed nearly three weeks of math so far this year, alone, which is not ideal, but you won't hear her complaining.

If the teacher missing comes from the beginning or end of day, and there's any way to foresee it (missing due to a known commitment, teacher conference, etc.), then a message is sent home to parents: If we sign our approval, our child can simply come into school later or leave earlier. Math is Gigi's first class on many days: a 9:30am start mean lots of sleeping in.

If the class is in the middle of the day, or if there's not enough advance warning for parental permission (or if your child doesn't get the required signature for approval), the children go to "permanence", commonly called "perm", and meaning something like what Americans would call "study hall" (a supervised free period, that is). Or, if they're older, they go out for a smoke.

This is not just at my daughter's school. I've asked around. It's a common thing. The reason, I'm told, is that there just aren't enough substitute teachers, and it's too difficult to get just the right person qualified in specific subject matter for particular grade levels.

So Gigi's math suffers. But she's very, very well rested.

THE CHEESE: Vieille Tomme de Chèvre

Tomme de Chèvre? Pfft. It's nothing if it's not a Vieille Tomme de Chèvre -- an Old Goat Cheese. Unlike most goat cheeses, an old tomme is super dry and crumbly. It's very much like Parmesan, in all the best ways: salty, sweet, nutty, with a flavor explosion.

Many of these Vieilles Tommes are farmhouse cheeses, generally from the mountain regions, and always made with raw goats' milk. They can be aged as much as two years -- and they taste like it. This is so delicious, I am actually disappointed that my outdoor market cheese guy gives me a sample of it, because now I have no official need to buy it. Which means that all I get is the one taste.


Vieille Tomme de Chèvre is a delicious cheese, and I could say that there's no substitute for it. But, in fact, there is. It makes an almost perfect substitute for any of your fresh Parmesan needs, and conversely I think a nice hunk of Parmesan would substitute quite well if you're in the mood for a salty, nutty, tangy Vieille Tomme de Chèvre but can't find any. In fact, the next time I need some fresh Parmesan in the house, I'm going to buy a wedge of this instead (and then proceed to wolf it all down with the girls and Anthony and then, presumably, need to go out and buy more).

Nov 14, 2014

Chez Simon Montpelier: Saint Félicien


Following on the heels of yesterday's gourmet posting, this is a good indication our children have crossed over...to the French side. After so much traveling and eating out, they develop an obsession with restaurants and decide to create one in our house: Restaurant Chez Simon Montpelier (named after a ghost in a favorite childhood book, Which Witch?).

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