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.



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