Dec 2, 2016

Frankly, Scarlet: Tome du Moulis


The Castle of Queen Blanche is possibly the most overlooked French castle there is. In truth, it's barely a castle. And it's tucked into a neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement. The history is a bit murky. Its greatest claim to fame is the color red. Cardinal red. Scarlet red.

The original building -- at the time in the countryside outside of Paris proper -- was built in the 13th century, most likely named after and lived in by at least one of three Queens: Was it Marguerite de Provence, the widow in morning after the death of her husband, King Louis XIV (Saint Louis), who had it constructed around the year 1290? She would have been known as a "White Queen" ("Reine Blanche") due to the white worn by widows in mourning. Other theories are that it was named for Blanche of Bourgogne (born around 1296), the wife of King Charles IV. Or Blanche de Castille, wife of Louis VIII and mother of Louis IX who died in 1252.

Historians are also split on whether this is the building in the description of a grand costume ball when some wild, feathered "savage" costumes caught fire in 1392, killing several friends of King Charles VI ("The Well-Loved" or "The Crazy", who ruled from 1380-1422) and almost killing the king himself. This was the same year the king was said to have gone crazy, slaying four knights and attempting to kill one brother who were riding with him in battle. He had bouts of paranoia and of being delusional, sometimes believing he was made of glass.

There is one written historical reference to Queen Blanche's castle from this time period, including a story of the fire, describing it as being "south of Paris" (which this would have been, till the area was incorporated into Paris borders in the 1800s).We do know that the original building was largely destroyed in a fire in 1392 and the remains were torn down in 1404.

The current building, built on the foundations of the older structure, dates to the 16th century. It was built by the family Gobelin (now the name of the neighborhood, and the metro stop), who used it as both a residence and their place of business: a dying factory. At the time, the Bievre river, a small stream, really, and tributary into the Seine, ran right through the neighborhood and right next to the small castle.

This is important in the Renaissance period, since water was required for the washing of fabrics and mixing the dyes. The fact that it was a small stream, which never flooded and which was easy to divert and manipulate (unlike the Seine) was an important factor: the stream could be split into two, allowing for mills from upper to lower levels. There are still canals dug out, now located in the current underground parking, that were used to channel water into the factory area and power horizontal mills -- that is, grindstones, used to grind up the materials used to dye fabrics.

all photos of old drawings taken from wall hangings at the Chateau de la Reine Blanche

This "teinturerie" had not just local significance, but worldwide renown. And that is solely because of the color red. Whatever this factory used to make its scarlets, their reds were deeper, more glorious, and longer-lasting than everybody else's reds. That made it the fabric and yarn-dying factory of choice for kings and cardinals -- the religious kind, that is. The Pope in Rome, the Kings of Europe, even the highest nobles in the New World would pay dearly for this red.

The family became wealthy, so wealthy that the castle was barely lived in more than a hundred or so years. Soon, they moved to Paris, to be closer to high society, and also to make room here in the Chateau de la Reine Blanche for the dying and drying.

It was so important to the Kings of France to have this rich red color, they were spared when the Huguenots (Protestants) were massacred in France (the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and aftermath of 1572). In fact, the Catholic Queen Catherine de Medicis (Italian widow of King Henry II of France, and mother of three French kings (in succession, as each brother died: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III) sent out troops to protect the Gobelin family and industry. If anything had happened to this factory, the Queen would have seen red, all right.

In case you're wondering -- I know I was -- "cardinal red" is named after this scarlet red color that cardinals (and bishops and popes and kings) wear. The North American bird, the cardinal, is named after the color (not the other way around), because the gorgeous red male plumage reminded people of the cardinals' robes.


So, in just about every old painting, when you see the red robes, you can assume that the threads and fabrics were died here at Les Gobelins.

Now, the castle and surrounding buildings (restored and built anew) are gorgeous, with a very hipster, rustic charm. An architecture firm makes its home behind rustic wooden doors to the side of the castle.

The tower in the castle serves no real purpose, other than to demonstrate the wealth of the family that owned the castle. They imported Flemish master carpenters to create this tower to nowhere.

The neighborhood is built up now, the Bievre stream long-since covered over and paved. But the Chateau de la Reine Blanche still stands as a reminder when, frankly, scarlet was not just a color but a social phenomenon.

THE CHEESE: Tome du Moulis

The Tome du Moulis (which could be spelled Tomme du Moulis, but is not) is a hard goats' milk cheese made from raw milk in the Pyrénées. More specifically, it comes from Moulis, a town in the department of Ariège. But less specifically, it may not always be made of goats' milk. Tome du Moulis also comes in cow and sheep and mixed milk versions.

The method of manufacture and the results are similar: the cheese is rubbed frequently during the aging process in order to obtain the hardened crust, gray when it's younger and ruddy brown when more aged. The interior, in the ariégeois tradition, may have holes in it, or it may be relatively smooth, like the sample I taste. It's a hard cheese, but one with a somewhat smooth and almost-creamy interior.

Usually, the cheese is aged between 4-6 months, with a 2-month minimum. The flavor will get more pronounced with time, but even at the older end, it's not a knock-your-socks off cheese. It does have character, and definite hints of flowers and grass, but it's more on the sweet than the stinky side. From experience, I can tell you that leftovers make excellent grilled-cheese sandwiches.


Mills and grindstones (moulins), powered by the local Bievre stream, were critical to the scarlet-dying process where ingredients -- including the secret scarlet ingredient -- had to be ground (moule). Unfortunately for me, Moulis is not the past tense, or future interieur tense, past participle, or even plus-que-parfait tense conjugation of the verb "mouler" -- to grind. It's actually a city name. But maybe if I went far enough back in history, the town was actually named after local mills, and there's a linguistic connection, after all.

In any event, I have a back-up connection or two. I get this cheese from La Cremerie Royale, which specializes in obtaining ultra-high end and rare cheeses (and delivering them by mail. Genius). Some of their cheeses have literally graced the tables of kings past and present -- not the actual hunk they send you, of course, but rather the same kind of cheese. The same king who might have eaten this Tome du Moulis could also have worn scarlet fabrics, dyed at the Gobelins factory.

And finally, it may be difficult to find a scarlet-colored cheese (but not impossible, thanks to some gaudy cheeses made with food dyes). The Tome du Moulis does have a reddish crust, but nothing close to scarlet. However, by coincidence, I do put this Tome du Moulis on a platter with some colorful splashes, thanks to a luscious batch of strawberries. They will not dye your fabric a royal scarlet, but they will stain your T-shirt red.

Nov 25, 2016

Little Smokers: P'tit Fumé


I've complained about the smoking in Paris, and throughout France, before. But I haven't told you just how deep -- and young -- the problem goes. Gigi recently told us that "the kids who smoked secretly last year now smoke openly in front of the school." And we're talking about kids who were mostly 13 last year and are now 14. When it comes to smoking, France sends kids a mixed message at best.

Not only is Gigi horrified that some 14 year olds are smoking openly, in front of teachers (also outside for smoke breaks), she's also horrified by how many of them smoke. She reports that roughly a third of her grade (of 150 kids) now smokes. Even if that number is slightly exaggerated -- perhaps it's a quarter? or 20%? -- that's still an awful lot of kids smoking. And these are kids from good families, who've tested into a competitive private school.

I decided to research this question and get some hard numbers, and they seem to back Gigi's claim up perfectly: as of a study in 2011, the average age to "experiment with tobacco" (and that must be almost entirely by lighting up a cigarette, as I've never seen a French person do anything else with tobacco) is 13.5. The report also states that 29% of  French students smoke. I'm assuming here they mean middle/high school students, but who knows. If they mean all students, that would put the number of middle/high school students much higher in order to bring that average up.

That number is 9% higher than in Great Britain and 17% higher than in Germany. The overall rate for smoking in California is something like 15%, about half that of France overall, and anecdotally, for high school kids (especially good students at competitive schools), the number is much, much lower than that. And no, I'm not talking about smoking of anything other than regular tobacco.


I'm sure the French would see us as draconian: California recently passed a law making the legal age to buy cigarettes 21. But in France, they seem to have gone the opposite way. Last year, after the terrorist attacks, the country put in place a set of "vigipirate" (state of emergency) rules and guidelines. Understandably, the schools weren't supposed to let large groups of students loiter outside the school walls, on the sidewalks. You would think that meant the kids who went out to smoke would be out of luck.

But this is France: our children's K-12 school invited all the children to smoke inside the courtyard, in the presence of the other children, including sometimes elementary school kids. That means my non-smoking kids regularly breathe in the second-hand smoke of their classmates -- their 13 year old classmates. What an example to set to anybody. I'm just so appalled by this, I can't even pretend to be  neutral. There are some cultural differences that I try to respect, but this one is just plain stupid and wrong.

Here's a street scene that makes my blood boil. The French see me as just too American. I have three doctor friends (two of whom smoke) who've told me the French doctors recommend that smokers NOT stop smoking when they are pregnant, because they feel the nicotine withdrawals would be bad for the fetus. I'm dying here. Not to mention how the fetus is feeling.


This elementary school kid pictured below is smoking a fake cigarette as part of a costume. But I can tell you that, sadly, it's not so far off reality.

THE CHEESE: P'tit Fumé

P'tit Fumé is another little gem in the crown of Le Pere Bafien, who makes other ultra high-end, crazy delicious goat cheeses, including their eponymous cheese previously described. This one is a little nubbin of a cheese, about the size of an individual yogurt cup. As delicious as a yogurt cup is, I'd much rather have the P'tit Fumé.

Made of raw goats' milk in the Haute-Vienne, which is the department around the city of Limoges in the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine (formerly called the region of Poitou-Charentes, but that's a subject for a different blog post). This to me, is the area that produces the best goat cheese in France, which in turn produces the best goat cheese in the world. And given that this is one of the best goat cheese producers in the Poitou-Charentes/ Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, that's really saying something about it.

Le P'tit Fumé is unusual in that it's a little nubbin of a smoked cheese, which makes sense given the name: "petit" means "little" and "fumé" means "smoked". This is not to say that you should smoke it. Rather, it's been aged in smoky conditions, and the cheese is absolutely permeated with the smoke of a wood fire. It's beyond dreamy and delicious, if you like the smell of a campfire in your cheese. The smell is strong enough that it's isolated from the other cheese and kept in glass containers wherever it's sold (in this photo, at the Quatrehomme fromagerie). Its texture is thick and densely creamy.

Le P'tit Fumé is a perfect little cheese -- unusual yet classic.


A cheese and a story can hardly be linked more literally than this one: P'tit Fumé (Little Smoke) for a story on little smokers. That being said, one I loathe, the other I love. I detest the smoking in France and especially when it's done by or around children (and fetuses!). I hate the smell of the cigarette smoke, and the fact that even my children are bombarded with unhealthy second-hand smoke. Even at school. On the other hand, I absolutely adore this smoky little cheese -- the campfire aroma in a creamy, cheesy nubbin.

Nov 18, 2016

Having a Ball: Crottin Fermier de Cocumont


Oh, how I wish we could turn back time, before the leader-elect of my country was a power-hungry egomaniac, to the days when the elected leader of France was a power-hungry egomaniac. The Second Empire may have been a bad time politically in the history of this democracy, but it turns out it was a fabulous time economically, artistically, and culturally. And it turns out I can turn back time, for a one day visit to the Second Empire at the Musée d'Orsay.

Nov 11, 2016

To Bad-Ass Women: Tome Nature


This one portrait, painted by Léon Cogniet and hanging at the Château de Brissac contains two of the baddest-ass French women in history we encounter in all our time in France. The older lady sitting on the chair is the Widow Clicquot; you might recognize her better if I say it in French -- Veuve Clicquot. And the girl at her feet is her great-granddaughter, the Duchesse d'Uzès, Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart, who grows up to become the first French woman to have a driver's license (and the first to get a speeding ticket).

Nov 4, 2016

The Power of Cheese (Literally): Abbaye de Tamié


The hills are alive, with the sound of cheese whey being turned into biogas. For example, the Abbaye de Tamié monastary in Savoie processes 4,000 liters of milk per day (around 1,000 gallons), making 400kg of cheese, with 4 cubic meters of whey and 8 of white water as byproducts.

Oct 28, 2016

Poor Man's Truffles: Pierre Blanche


It's Cèpe season, and that means that I buy the largest mushroom in this photo and pay 19 for it --for just the one. Mind you, it's a big mushroom (nearly a foot or 30cm tall). But still, that's rather expensive. Is it worth it? Well, in a lucky and unusual turn of events, I prefer the taste of the cheap Champignons de Paris (like button mushrooms, but with more flavor). I find the Cèpe just a little bit slimier, with a slightly chemical twang.

Oct 21, 2016

Save the Gazebo!: Gloriotte


Save the Gloriette de Buffon! It's a very unassuming gloriette -- or gazebo -- and won't do much to shade you from the sun. But it's the location, on the top of a hill right in the Jardin des Plantes, and the history that make it something special.

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