Oct 19, 2014

Tap Dance Into Oblivion: Gramma de Bourissiac


My friend Megan comes in town from San Francisco and wants to try the Hammam (Middle Eastern style baths and spa) at La Mosquée de Paris, the great Paris Mosque, in the 5th arrondissement. We meet there on a day open only to women to get the works. Everything about the place is like traveling through space and time. It's an out-of-body, out-of-Paris experience.

Oct 18, 2014

Vintage Wheels: Cantal au Lait de Salers


I should preface this by saying that there is perhaps nobody in the world less qualified to write about cars than myself.

Before marrying Anthony and sharing his Saab, I had an old Volkswagen, at least, I think it was a Volskwagen, but it might have been a Toyota. That's how much of a car person I am. Anyway, I had this car that was shaped like a milk carton tipped on its side. I named her "Sugar", because she was my sweet ride. Which is to say, she got me from Point A to Point B, and cured me forever of any fears I had of driving stick shift; once you can parallel park without power steering in a stick shift on a San Francisco hill, you can drive anywhere.

One day, I ran into my downstairs neighbor, Joan, who is a fantastic handyman, except that she's a woman. She asked me how the steering felt in my car. What a coincidence that she should ask! Sugar had been driving like a dream for the past couple weeks. I told her, in amazement, that it was as if I suddenly had power steering! She looked at me oddly for a moment, until she finally decided that I was not in any way kidding or teasing her. And then she told me that two weeks earlier she had changed my tire for me, because it was so flat. I think she was wondering why I never thanked her, and at least during this conversation she had the epiphany that I wasn't ungrateful or rude, just utterly and hopelessly clueless about cars.
So when I tell you that I love seeing vintage cars around Paris, a vintage city, you should know that they very well not be vintage cars at all. They could have come off a factory line yesterday. But they look adorable and old to me. Yet even I can identify the era of this vehicle -- A US army Jeep from World War II, which I presume is authentic.
And this rusty old thing in the middle of the streets -- and I don't mean my friend, Barry; I mean the car. Barry is an 86-year old friend and reader who visits Paris annually, and he's anything but rusty. The other day, he walked from Ile St. Louis to Montmartre. Even I wouldn't do that walk on a normal day. But he and his partner-in-crime Judith spotted this car and couldn't resist. So at least I know it's not just me that's entranced by these sweet old rides toodling around Paris' streets.
photos from my friends Judith & Barry

These guys are on their way to an old car convention, so I'm pretty sure they're the real deal.


And these, frankly, may more not be anything. But just look at how atmospheric they are.

And this motorcycle, which is probably not vintage at all. But it's adorable, and I love the look of it against the Montparnasse neighborhood background.

THE CHEESE: Cantal au Lait de Salers

Both Cantal and Salers, two classic, old, mountain cows' milk cheeses can be made from the milk of any breed of cow and still meet their AOP requirements. However, this cheese is slightly more specific: a farmhouse Cantal au Lait de Salers, made a Cantal made specifically with milk from the Salers breed cow (Salers being a place and a breed of cow, as well as a cheese name). In addition, some Cantals are made from pasteurized milk, but this cheese is a raw milk.

And you would think, with all of that in its background, it would be stronger, earthier, and heartier than a regular Cantal or Salers. But you would be wrong. In fact, it's a semi-hard cheese that reminds me more of an American-style Edam -- slightly rubbery and mild. It's nice enough to taste a free sample, and I'm sure it's fine on a sandwich, but it's just not exciting enough to buy.


Cantal au Lait de Salers is a combination of two classics: Salers milk in the style of a Cantal cheese, just like this story is about a combination of two classics: classic vehicles set against the backdrop of a classic city.

Oct 17, 2014

Match Made in Heaven: La Baratte du Crémier


One of Gigi's French friends is at our house for snack time. When her mother picks her up, she excitedly tells her that we served her bread -- with butter! She raves about what a great idea this is. It is still funny to me, even after all this time, that in France bread and butter don't go together like, well, bread and butter.

Oct 16, 2014

Patient Rights & Responsibilities: Pomerol

Anthony sees on his prescription that he is supposed to find a nurse to take out his stitches after a recent shoulder surgery for tendonitis. He gets a business card from the pharmacy downstairs of somebody who makes house calls in the neighborhood, phones her, and -- literally -- two minutes later, the doorbell rings. She plops her bag on our crumb-covered, slightly-sticky, unwashed-from-breakfast dining room table and gets to work. Don't worry: the huge chopping knife behind the water pitcher is not to be used for the procedure but, rather, is leftover from cutting fruit.

Oct 15, 2014

My Big Backyard: Bray aux Graines de Lin


This past summer, we spent a lot of time at our friends' country homes. This sounds very frou-frou and chi-chi, like we only hang out with rich people. Actually, many Parisians -- even many in the straight-up middle-class -- have country homes. Often they are family homes, handed down. Other times they are purchased, because while people many can't afford to buy their place in Paris, it's a lot easier to afford something out in the hinterlands.

Oct 14, 2014

A Map, a Town, a Cheese: Epoisses


I used to look at a map of France and see a bunch of names of places I'd either heard of or, more often, not. Now, over 300 days into my Year in Fromage, what I see when I look at a map is a whole lot of cheese names. For example, here in Burgundy, you see the name of the charming hilltop village Dôme de Vézelay; I see a big ball of toad-skin cheese.

You see the medieval town of Chablis (or maybe you see a bottle of wine); I see a stinky cheese:


There are many place names outside of Burgundy, too, that lend their name to their local cheese, like Provins:


But of all the French cheese, it may just be Epoisses that has the strongest place-cheese association. For me, it's as if somebody named a town "Pizza" or "Meatloaf", although I fully realize that the name of the town came first.

We are staying for a week of vacation in a friend's house in Burgundy just a few towns away, so of course I insist to the girls that we visit Epoisses -- the town, not the cheese -- with Epoisses -- the cheese, not the town. The 15th century castle, or what's left of it anyway, is in such great shape that it is still privately inhabited. But like so many private castles, it's also open for tours. It takes a lot of money to keep a castle going in the 21st century, now that there's a real paucity of serfs.


There used to be more to the castle, but a couple sides were destroyed in the Revolution. It was more of a symbolic gesture, really, since the townspeople actually liked their local nobility enough to send in a written petition to have them spared the guillotine.

It's a très charmant castle, and even the Queen of England herself has visited. No photos allowed inside the castle, and since it's a private home, with a reasonable entrance fee, and an engaging guide, for once I actually respect that rule.

But I am allowed photos in the non-residential buildings, including a beautiful dovecote and private chapel.


THE CHEESE: Epoisses

Epoisses is a classic cheese, one of the famous ones. It's an orange cheese made in the town of Epoisses. I can be from raw or pasteurized cows' milk. The original, the "real" thing, is made from raw milk. And while that still exists, it's very difficult to find. When you do, it's not for the faint of heart.


What you'll normally see -- pretty much everywhere in the country and even the world, at this point -- is Epoisses made by Berthault, which is headquartered in the center of Epoisses.

They have to use pasteurized milk since it's a large enterprise, exporting worldwide. But still, the pasteurization feels surprising given both what a classic cheese it is and also how pungent it remains.

Epoisses has a distinguished history. A community of monks settled in Epoisses in the early 1500s, and it's believed that by the time they moved out of the village around 200 years later, they had both created and passed on the recipe for Epoisses. Later, it graced the tables of the Count of Guitaut, a nobleman in Louis XIV's entourage. Napoleon Bonaparte was also said to enjoy Epoisses. By 1900, there were around 300 farms making Epoisses cheese in the area. It began to decline during the period of the two world wars, when there simply were not enough workers left here to bother with a time-consuming cheese-making process, and even after the war, many people had lost the inclination. In 1956, a couple of farmers decided to revive their local cheese, and by 1991, it even received an AOC.

Its prime season is June through August, when it's made from the first batch of milk after the regional cows -- three breeds: Brune from Châtillonnais, French Simmental in Langres and near Auxois, and Montbéliarde near Auxois and Dijon -- start grazing in the pasture. The other prime season, conversely, is in November, December, when the milk from the cows is fragranced by autumn vegetation While it doesn't have to be made in Epoisses itself, the permitted region is centered around this small, medieval town.

When ripe and at its peak, Epoisses is so runny that it needs to be served with a spoon. This particular nubbin of Epoisses may have been made in its prime, but its clearly past its prime in terms of consumption, since instead of being runny, it's dried out and hardened.

But even hardened, old Epoisses can be made oozy and perfect. In a local Burgundy restaurant, we have Gougère stuffed with melted Epoisses: rich, but heavenly.

Washed in a Marc de Bourgogne (alcohol made from the grape skins and remains from the winemaking process), the cheese is a stinky, powerfly, orange rind cheese. And while I'm not always the biggest fan of the orange cheeses, Epoisses (and its cousins Affidelice, Langres, and Chambertin) is something special: sweet, creamy, tangy, stinky, and complex.


Once, when I was around 10 years old, I cut a stalk of celery from our backyard garden and brought it inside to spread cream cheese and raisins and have "ants on a log". I remember thinking, "Boy, it doesn't get any fresher than that!" Then suddenly, I realized it does get fresher. So I brought some cream cheese and raisins out to the garden, spread them on the celery, and ate the stalk while it was still planted. "Now that's the freshest it can get!"

That's pretty much how I feel about eating Epoisses while in Epoisses. I decide it's not enough to eat the Epoisses near the town, or even just in the town, I must be at the epicenter -- by the old castle of Epoisses. If you're wondering why it's a solid block of cheese, it's a particularly old nubbin of Epoisses, and the rest was eaten earlier when it was its more typical runny/soft texture.

Oct 13, 2014

Their Highness: Altesse des Vosges


Like the Duke of Normandy, at one point the Dukes of Burgundy were arguably more powerful than the King of France. This has never made any sense to me, since the Duke is supposed to be under the King. But then again, we had Bush and Cheney.

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