Dec 31, 2013

Sloppy Seconds: Briquette Thym


Recently, I am reading through the Dorie Greenspan cookbook, Around My French Table, and I come across a nugget on French cheese platters in which she mentions that good etiquette dictates you should never go back for a second slice of a cheese from the platter. You have one chance as it goes around to get what you want, never to be seen again.

I am stunned. For years, I have been delving into the cheese -- repeatedly and enthusiastically (and, frankly, loudly. I'm not exactly a shrinking violet).

Dec 30, 2013

Raw, Naked Courage: Lou Titounet

I frequently pass by a small artist studio on the Rue de Bievre in the 5th arrondissement. Lately a sign has been hanging in the window asking for nude models. As an experience junkie, I think this is certainly something I should try. First of all, I am in Paris, one of the world's great art centers; secondly, I am not particularly modest (I've done way too much theater with backstage quick-changes); thirdly, I seriously enjoy shocking my husband and mother, which gets more and more difficult to do since this is a known personality quirk of mine. Still, despite limited modesty or shame, I admit it does sound a bit embarrassing to stand there in my starkers while somebody eyes me critically for a drawing. So it takes me a few days to work up my courage to call the artist, both because I'm volunteering to be painted/drawn nude and also because I will have to have a conversation in French, over the phone, about a subject matter I've never tackled before.

I need not have worried, as the only question he asks me is "How old are you?" and when I tell him 44, he simply replies, "My models are younger," and that's that. So my short-lived career as an artist's nude model ends as it starts, fully clothed in my apartment.

I'm wondering if I should argue the point with the artist, since I think I am in better shape now than I ever was 20 years ago. (For all I know, he's aiming for something Rubenesque, and I'm too fit.) In the end, I just tell him I understand and hang up. "Standing Female Nude, 1910" by Pablo Picasso and "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" by Marcel Duchamp show me why it might be important sometimes to have a young, nubile model.


THE CHEESE: Lou Titounet

Lou Titounet is a raw sheep's milk cheese that comes from southern France. More often, cheeses in this form with the white crust are made from cow's milk. This texture and appearance do, in fact, bring to mind a small cow cheese, the flavor has a sweet, grassy flavor that definitely hints of sheep.

It's creamy and quite nice in a simple, easy, not-so-spectacular way.


It's a raw cheese, and it's got the word "tit" right in the name. Honestly, I don't have any better reason than that.

Dec 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities: Cantal Entre-Deux


When I was still in San Francisco, and I said that I was moving to Paris, I invariably got the same response: an involuntary gasp, usually accompanied with a hand to the heart, and the words, "Oh, I love Paris! You're so lucky!"

Here in Paris, when I tell people I am from San Francisco, I get....the exact same response. The involuntary gasp, usually with a hand to the heart, and a dreamy, "Oh, I love San Francisco." Sometimes followed by the quizzical, "Why did you move here?" I have had many Frenchies tell me that they would love to live in the US -- but only if it were in San Francisco. Sometimes they concede to New York City. But mostly just SF, even if they've never been there.

Why the love affair? Is it the common obsession with food and wine? The mutual predilection for site-specific architectural styles, and a distinctive look to the streets? A certain tendency to left-leaning politics (so much so that being merely left is considered conservative vis-à-vis the more radical left)? A firmly-rooted belief that any city worth its salt has a large steel icon, ideally phallic in nature, and also très photogenic?

Whatever the reason, there was rarely a day in SF when I didn't hear some French being spoken on the streets (and I'm talking about outside my own little francophone world there), and there is certainly a hefty chunk of the California, and specifically San Francisco, population here in Paris. And no, it's not just the Parisians being polite. As an experiment, I've told dozens of people I'm from Minneapolis or Rochester, NY (both true, in my case), and  believe me, I don't get the hand-to-the-heart maneuver.

Last night I had a stress dream in which the troubling part was -- I kid you not -- that I bought veal, but it was not organic. Spurred on by this dream, this morning, I buy something in "A Touch of Bio" which is a store whose name (which is in English, mind you) will give you a big clue as to its contents: "bio" being the code word in French for "organic". It is in the 5th arrondissement, which is one of the most international areas of Paris. I hear the owner speaking perfect American English to the customer before me, so I speak to her in English also (it always seems more than a bit artificial when I am speaking French with another native anglophone). She asks where I am from, and when I say I'm from San Francisco, she seems so stunned at the coincidence, because she is from San Francisco, too! I deadpan, "We're in a natural food store, in the 5th, and I'm buying tofu and sprouts. I can't say I'm that surprised."

THE CHEESE: Cantal Entre-Deux

Entre-deux means "between-two" and in this photo, that is literally true, as the Cantal is the yellow one sandwiched in the middle.

It's a very, very popular and common hard cheese that comes from central France and undergoes a rare double pressing in the manufacturing process. While it is normally made from pasteurized cow's milk nowadays, the original versions were made from raw milk, and those that are still made that way are considered the elite of Cantals.

A Cantal can be "jeune", as young as 30 days, in which case it would be very white and mild. Or it can be aged six months or more till it's a robust, nutty, yellow cheese called "vieux" (old). But often it's sold aged somewhere in between -- "entre-deux", and it's the lightly golden cheese you see in the photo above. It's somewhere between creamy and crumbly. The taste is also very Goldilocks "just right" -- not too mellow, not too strong. It's easy to see why it's a popular cheese.

It's one of the only cheeses that goes through an unusual process where the curds are shaken and re-cut during the pressing -- a process called "cheddaring".

It has one of the most interesting histories of all the French cheeses: After the Norman invasion in 1066, the French who were now in England needed stonemasons to build and rebuild castles. They brought in the best stoneworkers from their home country, who come from the Cantal region, where they have worked with granite since time immemorial. These stonemasons settled in and around a town called Cheddar, and brought with them not just their stonemason skills, but also their cheese-making traditions.

Over 500 years later, some of their descendants, now thoroughly English, immigrated to the New World, calling the area New England, of course, and bringing with them their cheese-making tradition, which went from Cantal through Cheddar to places like Vermont where one finds absolutely delicious Cheddar cheese. Is it just like Cantal? No, over a thousand years there's been some evolution and individualization, but they are related. And both wonderful.


I was having a conversation with a friend here who has lived on and off between France and the US for decades, in roughly eight-year stretches. He and I were talking about how one of the few downsides of living abroad is that while you feel at home in two different cultures, you also don't quite feel like you belong in either of them. I've lived overseas about half of my adult life, and it's a hard feeling to explain, but I often think that the people I most identify with are other ex-pats, and oddly this can be true even when I'm in my own country and the ex-pats are foreigners living in America. I can certainly think of worse things in life than feeling caught between San Francisco and Paris, but it's true that I often feel "between-two."

Cantal -- itself, a transplant in both England and New England (and later, Wisconsin) -- is a cheese that can sympathize with my plight.


Dec 28, 2013

10 Most Eye-Catching: Trappe d'Echourgnac


Here they are: arguably the nine most eye-catching cheeses I've ever seen, and the tenth is the featured cheese of the day. Just try to imagine all these beauties on a platter together. Actually, that might be circuit-blowing overload. Really, all you need is one of these on a platter to draw people's attention. They might not all be my favorite tasting, frankly, but they're unusual and gorgeous.

           Roquefort au Coing                       La Pelta                                       Gaperon
            Coronne Lochoise                           Morbier                          Boulette d'Aversnes
 Coeur de Neufchatel                        Langres                                     Brin du Maquis
  Trappe Echourgnac

THE CHEESE: Trappe d'Echourgnac

Trappe d'Echourgnac is a most unusual cheese, but you wouldn't know it from my cheese encyclopedia. There are a few points where my eye, my taste-buds, my favorite cheesemonger, and the cheese encyclopedia agree: It's a pasteurized cow milk artisanal cheese made in the Périgord (also known as the Dordogne and also known as the Aquitaine). The cheese is ripened for three months -- two in the abbey caves and another month at the cheese shop before it's sold. Since 1868, it has been made by Trappist monks at the Abbaye d'Echourgnac, hence the name.

But my book shows a picture of a regular creamy-yellow cheese that is, well, cheese-colored. The Trappe d'Echourgnac I have before me and the others that I see regularly in the cheese shop are a gorgeous and unusual mahogany color. Actually, the color of walnut-stained wood is a far more appropriate description because, in fact, the cheese is hand-rubbed with walnut liqueur (walnuts being a big crop in the Périgord). If you have ever thought to yourself, "What I would really like to try is a cheese hand-rubbed by a Trappist monk with walnut liqueur," then this is most definitely the cheese for you.

The texture is a bit rubbery -- really nothing to write home about. But the taste more than makes up for that. Often when I'm describing these cheeses, it's like describing a wine in that its hard to find the adjectives to convey the subtle flavors. But this one is not so subtle. It tastes -- all the way through, mind you, and not just the rind -- like walnuts. Truly. It's absolutely delicious and sort of like having a piece of walnut cake, that is not sweet and bready but rather rubbery and salty. A most unusual flavor, especially in a cheese.


Besides having a really unusual flavor, Trapp d'Echourgnac is a really unusual looking cheese. Though it's a simple round disk, the walnut rub elevates it by turning it a fascinating purple-eggplant color unlike any other cheese I've seen. That makes it, to my eye (and purely subjectively, I know), one of the 10 most eye-catching and beautiful cheeses to put on a platter.

Dec 27, 2013

My Secret Sous-Chef: Emmental de Savoie

My French friend, Marie, tells me that "No French woman would be caught without a freezer full of Picard. Picard is our little secret." Yes, it may be sexist but, hey, how many Frenchmen are cooking their family dinners (probably even fewer than American men...)? Popular as it is here, Picard may just be the worst-kept secret around.
Picard could best described, at least to Californians and people in urban hipster environments, as the frozen section of Trader Joe's on steroids. Without the steroids.

Dec 26, 2013

Sprink and a Ding Dong Ding: Saint Nicolas


Saint Nicolas -- full name Saint Nicolas de la Dalmerie -- is made in a Greek Orthodox monastery about 85km west of Montpellier, in the Languedoc region of central-southern France. The monastery of Saint Nicolas has been in the hamlet of la Dalmerie since 1965. The monks keep a herd of goats and transform all of the milk that they produce into this lovely cheese, dedicated to Saint Nicolas, an icon in the Byzantine tradition.

Dec 25, 2013

The Problem As I See It: Bleu des Causses


Bleu des Causses is an industrial cow's milk blue cheese -- a cousin of Roquefort cheese -- from central Southern France, in a part of the country known as the Massif Central and, more specifically, in the plateaus, which are called "causses" in French, despite the fact that "plateau" is, in and of itself, a French word. Bleu des Causses is aged at least 70 days in the limestone caves in the region (it's an AOC cheese), and usually 3-6 months. This long affinage makes for a fine, strong blue. The cheese is more ivory-colored in the summer and, appropriately, snow-white in the winter.

Dec 24, 2013

I'm on Fire! (No, Really): Boucanier Chèvre Fumé


On Christmas Eve, we cross the Seine, walking past Notre Dame, where barriers and an exterior video screen have been set up to accommodate the expected influx for Christmas Eve midnight mass. Instead, we opt for a 6pm mass at Eglise St. Severin, a 13th century church on the Rive Gauche side. I cannot resist snapping photos of the candlelight service, especially since they present the first live nativity play I've ever seen. It's not just in movies! It turns out that Gigi and Pippa's classmates are in it, playing Mary and shepherds. Jesus is played by a real live baby -- a very calm little girl in a tutu.

During the service, the priests hand out votive candles to all the children for a parade through the aisles of the church -- not just the actors from the nativity scene children, but all children attending.

Some of the parents are accompanying the children, and of course I want to be one of them so I can get photos from different angles. As they start handing out real, lit candles to four-year olds in a very crowded parade of children and a packed church, I think, "They would never do this in the States. It's got to be too dangerous. I just hope Gigi doesn't catch her long hair on fire." As a reader, with the benefit of foreshadowing, you see what's coming, of course. But in the church, I don't. Twenty seconds after I have this thought, I simultaneously smell the unmistakable stink of burning hair and feel the boy behind me swatting at my head.

A sizeable chunk of my hair is burnt, to about 7 or 8 inches up from the bottom. My friends assure me it is not noticeable at all. I'm not sure which is worse: having my hair incinerated or finding out that my hair always looks like it's been incinerated. I mean, what does that say about my normal hairstyle -- that literally lighting it afire makes no discernible difference? Other than the smell, that is: My friend Fabrice calls the new scent "Eau d'Enfer No. 5." ("Enfer" meaning "hell.")

My friends and I originally decide that it may be God punishing me either for being Jewish attending mass or, more likely, for being Jewish attending mass and taking photos throughout the ceremony. However, upon reflection, I decide that it cannot be that: if God really wanted to punish me, He would corrupt all my digital photo files. Instead, I think it must mean that God is a huge fan of my blog. And He just wants to contribute His own little anecdote.
THE CHEESE: Boucanier Chèvre Fumé
Boucanier Chèvre Fumé, is as the name suggests, a goat milk cheese -- raw in this case. And the word "fumé" means smoked. Think of the difference between turkey and smoked turkey, or ham and smoked ham. Closer to home in the cheese world, you might have tasted both a Gouda and smoked Gouda. If that's the case, you'll know that the smoking process changes the flavor drastically. The Boucanier is smoked with beech wood, and while I can't identify the type of tree without asking, there's no missing the fact that it's smoked.

I want to describe it to you as the exact size and shape of an onigiri, but then I will have to explain what an onigiri is (for those who've lived in Japan, you know it's a little rice triangle snack). Looking for something more universally helpful, let's say it's about the size of a deck of cards -- if your deck of cards were triangular, and shaped like an onigiri.

This goat cheese comes from Sisteron in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence; you can just picture the mountain goats cavorting happily, and that comes through in the taste. Between the smoky-goaty flavor, and the super-creamy texture, it's highly unusual and addictive. I would have expected the kids to be turned off by what I perceive as an "adult flavor", but even our girls love it. Our family would probably argue over the last bits, except that the whole triangle is gone so fast, we don't even have time to quibble.
Why is this cheese kept under a jar lid in the store? To contain the intensely smoky smell.
In the case of a Boucanier Chèvre Fumé, I love the smokiness, so instead of Eau d'Enfer, it smells to me like Eau de Paradis. Though I still wouldn't want to actually wear it. This smoky aroma is much better on the cheese than on my hair.

Dec 23, 2013

Does Batman Smell?: Langres (Affiné à la Mirabelle)


Some things are universal, like bastardizing Christmas songs. American children sing (and have always sung, and will always sing) to the tune of Jingle Bells:

Jingle bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg.

I don't know the rest of the real words of the fake version because Gigi has bastardized the bastardized version so that it continues:

So who cares, about those two?
They are very stupid.

This, of course, is deliciously fun to sing because it includes the taboo "S" word.

Well, in France, the real words to the song are:

Vive le vent, vive le vent,
Vive le vent d'hiver...

(Long live the wind, long live the wind,
Long live the winter wind...)

But the children here sing, in endless loops, for weeks leading up to Christmas:

Vive le vent, vive le vent
Vive le vendredi
Car demain c'est samedi et on fui camp d'ici, hey!

Vive le vent, vive le vent
Vive le vendredi
Car demain c'est samedi et on fui camp d'ici.

On met l'école en feu
Tous les profs aux milieu
Aussi la directrice et on fou camp d'ici, hey!

(Long live Fri, long live Fri
Long live Friday
Because tomorrow is Saturday, and we'll flee from here, hey!

Long live Fri, long live Fri
Long live Friday
Because tomorrow is Saturday, and we'll flee from here, hey.

We'll set the school on fire,
All the teachers in the middle
And also the director, and we'll flee from here, hey!)

I'm so happy we've given our children this opportunity to immerse themselves so they can become fluent with the language and comfortable with the culture, and so that I can hear their sweet, angelic voices singing out this holiday classic. Repeatedly. Perhaps I should ask Santa to bring me ear-muffs, too.

THE CHEESE: Langres (Affiné à la Mirabelle)

A Langres is a classic cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk and named after the region where it originates, Langres, Champagne. Under its AOC labeling, it can also be made in immediate surrounding areas.

That characteristic crater on top of the cheese is not an accident, and not a result of an oozing cave-in. Rather, it's put there to serve as a holder for champagne -- or marc de champagne (which is a local liquor made from the grape skins leftover in the champagne-making process). But you don't drink the champagne from the stinky cheese. Rather, you dig in and get a little champagne to spread and eat with your cheese.

The orange color on the outside comes from a red dye extracted from annatto seeds (called rocou in French) and rubbed on during the ripening. The cheese is normally rubbed with marc de champagne throughout the process to help it develop its stinky, salty intensity. But in this particular case, it has been ripened with liqueur of mirabelles, a yellow-orange French plum variety. While it can still be called a Langres even if it is only aged 15 days (for a small, hockey-puck sized version like this, and 21 days for a bigger version), you can tell by the insane liquid pouring out of the center that this is a more fully aged and ripe version. Any riper and we'd need a straw to drink the cheese, let alone the champagne.

Does Batman Smell? We may never know the answer. But does this cheese smell? Most definitely. Plus, you can sing the name of this cheese to the same tune:

Mira-belle, Mira-belle,
Langres Affiné.
Oh what fun it is to try
this stinky cheese today. Hey!

Dec 22, 2013

Paris, A Book Report: Bethia Blue de Brebis Basque


Even though the girls are reading "chapter books" now, there's still room for breaking out a picture books for a quick bedtime story. They've heard it a million times, and it's really too "babyish" for them, but the girls still love to hear Madeline. What's the draw? Well, it's the drawings. The pictures mean so much more to them now. The words on each page take about two seconds, but we analyze each illustration. Have we been there? Have we seen that angle? How does it look different today?


We can play the same game with Eloise in Paris, and Téa Stilton: Mystère à Paris (Thea Stilton and the Mystery in Paris, but we have the French version), and any other illustrated books set here.

Drawing vs. Photograph, Fact vs. Fiction, Then vs. Now: I can come up with the following guide without even having to break out my camera, because all of these are photos already in my existing files:

Notre Dame (Madeline):

Jardin de Luxembourg (Madeline):

Les Invalides (Madeline):

Sacré Coeur (Madeline):

Pont Alexandre III (Eloise in Paris):

Arc de Triomphe (Eloise in Paris):

On the subject, my friend Sue sent me this T-shirt which is both à propos and très chic. It's Madeline at the Arc de Triomphe.

Tour Montparnasse (never heard anybody call it the Tour Maine-Montparnasse, whether that's its official name or not, from Téa Stilton: Mystère à Paris -- part of the Geronimo Stilton series):

Le Grand Escalier (the Great Staircase) at l'Opéra (Téa Stilton: Mystère à Paris):

And, of course, each book has its own views of the Eiffel Tower, such as this one with fireworks and balcony view (Eloise in Paris):

Eiffel Tower as seen from across the Seine, at night (Téa Stilton: Mystère à Paris)

THE CHEESE: Bethia Blue de Brebis Basque
Sometimes also called Fromage Blue de Brebis Bethia, this blue cheese is a rare blue from Basque country. It's a relatively new cheese, invented and produced by one  farm: la Ferme Béthanoun, who produces this blue-veined beautiful log from raw sheep's milk.
The edges are a little too tough to eat, but the inside is somewhere between crumbly and creamy, with a middle-of-the-road strength blue. That is to say, if you love super-strong blues, you'll find it mellow but not bland. And if you find blues too strong, this will still be too strong for you.
A random sample of a page in the Geronimo Stilton series:
I was tempted to go with something that looked like the stereotypical cheese mentioned in a children's book -- the allusions to and illustrations of Emmental, perhaps, or something piled mile high like a Brillat-Savarin. But in the end, the temptation to go with a blue in honor of Geronimo Stilton (who is of course named after a blue cheese) was just too irresistible. Also, Bethia Blue de Brebis Basque has such fabulous alliteration and is so much fun to say, it sounds like a character in a children's book.

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