Jan 31, 2014

Happy Noodles: Tomme de Brebis d’Estive


When we first move here, all we can find is unhappy noodles. And unhappy dumplings. We genuinely miss genuine Chinese food. Many of the "traiteurs" around Paris are, as far as I'm concerned traitors to the art of Chinese cuisine. The bulk of the Chinese places have trays of pre-prepared food in the windows. They're swimming in a pool of grease and sitting there for hours. Then (avert your eyes: true horror  approaching), they are microwaved and served in plastic tubs.

Mostly these dishes are meant for take-out purchases and are sold by weight. This tiny snack below, which we do eat "in house" (and you can see the fabulous presentation) is 10€.


So imagine how happy we are to find Happy Nouilles (Noodles), a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in the 3rd arrondissement, near metro Arts & Metiers. We discover it when the girls are attracted to the guy hand-pulling noodles in the window. Though we have had only mediocre-at-best Chinese food in Paris up till that point and are pessimistic, we give it a try. The place is filled -- staff and diners -- with Mandarin Chinese speakers, and it surpasses all expectations. The dumplings even rival (Sacrilege Alert!) San Francisco's. The spicy soup is so spicy, it makes our eyes water and noses run.

You would think with the French history in Indochine that Vietnamese food would be better here. But usually you'll only find less-than-mediocre Chinese food. My family misses zingy, cheap, ethnic foods, and we've found that our best bet for cheap, ethnic eats in Paris is Middle Eastern falafel sandwiches, and specifically from the Rue des Rosiers in the Marais -- the only ethnic food we've found that's better here than in San Francisco.

THE CHEESE: Tomme de Brebis d’Estive

Tomme de Brebis d’Estive is a raw sheep's milk cheese that comes in enormous wheels of 5 or more kilograms (so, roughly 12+ lbs).

Estive is the period of the year when the snow melts, and the herds of sheep pass up into the mountains. This means the sheep eat the baby shoots of all the herbs and flowers, and the milk absorbs all those intense spring flavors. Estive ends in August, when the herds reach their highest altitudes.

Those flavors further intensify during the 4-6 month aging of the cheese. It's a hard cheese that manages to feel creamy as it melts in the mouth. Its rind is so thick and dry, even French cheese lovers generally choose not to eat it. You can definitely taste the complex herbal, floral, mountain flavors. Tomme de Brebis d'Estive (or sometimes, just Tomme d'Estive) is intense and full-bodied and stinky, but not overpowering like a Laguiole.


I bring you a sheep cheese in honor of today, Chinese New Year's, the start of year of the Horse. Sure it would make more sense next year, which is the year of the Sheep. But I couldn't find any cheeses made form the milk of horse. Or snake or dragon for that matter (the order of the Chinese zodiac, in case you care, is: Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig, Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake). Although I do think that I find a rat hair in my Chinese traiteur snack photographed at the top.

In any event, Happy Noodles, Happy Sheep-cheese Eating, and Happy Year of the Horse!

Jan 30, 2014

What's the Rush?: Saint Paulin


The girls and I marvel constantly at how Parisians don't seem to be in a hurry. They saunter, they stroll, they meander, while the three of us careen wildly like pinballs bouncing off the crowds as we rush places. Nowhere is this more evident than in the metro. As we approach the metro, we become weekend joggers. When we get past the ticket booth, we become track and fielders, and if we are near the stairs and hear a train pulling into the station, we run like Olympic sprinters to try to make it on time. Sometimes we make it in the nick of time, jumping onto the train just before the doors close.

The doors close mercilessly here and so we have devised an emergency plan for the (inevitable?) time when either I am separated from the girls or one of them is separated from the rest of us. The plan is this: Whoever is stuck on the train -- either because they didn't get off quickly enough or were the only ones who made it on -- gets off at the next stop and waits in that same spot for the next train. There are not express/local trains to worry about. Those left behind get on the next train and catch up. Even if we have to go the wrong direction, or leave the station that is our actual destination, that's the plan. The girls seem pretty excited to lose me, but we'll see how they feel when it's the real McCoy.

It has taken us a couple months of occasional metro riding to figure out why nobody else is rushing. Sometimes, we run down the stairs, "Aaaargh!!!!" only to find out we have just missed the train. In that case, we look up at the board and discover the next train is coming in 3, or 2 minutes. Sometimes, by the time we can stop panting and look up at the board, the next train has already arrived, and that's not an exaggeration; they sometimes come within 30 seconds of each other. There are so many trains, and they run so efficiently (well, unless there are strikes, demonstrations, bomb scares, or the rare "sick traveler" that closes a station), that it's almost -- almost -- Japanese. Perhaps our awe at the metro system is in direct reaction to riding the markedly-less efficient Muni buses in San Francisco. But now that we understand it, maybe we can slow down a bit. Unless we hear our train pulling in before we're ready on the track, that is.

THE CHEESE: Saint Paulin

Originally from Bretagne, and also made in a large surrounding area including Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy), Lorraine, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais (northern coast of France, along the Channel). Saint Paulin is considered a more industrial version of Port-Salut, but having said that, the one I buy is a high-quality, farmhouse version from an elite cheese shop, Androuet.

There is, however, a fully industrial version with the brand name of Saint-Paulin (hyphen definite in this case) that is produced both in France and Canada.

Saint-Paulin -- with or without the hyphen -- is also a generic term for this style of raw, uncooked, semi-hard cow's milk cheese.

Any way you slice it, it's a cow's milk cheese, aged and washed in humid cellars for two months. But given the range of variations, it's almost a sure bet that the one you buy won't taste like the one I try. And, for that matter, neither will the next one I buy, especially if I get an industrial version from a supermarket.

But given that it's an off-shoot of a Port-Salut, tasted both the Port-Salut and this farmhouse Saint Paulin, I think it's safe to describe this a medium-flavor, medium-texture cheese. That is to say, it's got a hint of stink, and a hint of acid, but mostly it's a mellow cow's cheese that won't shock the non-French palate. Texture-wise, it's not dry and crumbly, but it's also not creamy or oozy. It's safely in the middle: a slightly rubbery texture that melts in the mouth, but only if it's kept in the mouth and purposely melted there.


I have been racking my brain for a cheese that would link with the metro theme; the only one I could think of was Saint Paulin, since one of the metro stations we use most is at Saint Paul. But I've been scouring stores for weeks for a Saint Paulin with no luck. Until today. I finally find one in an Androuet store in the 17th arrondissement. More amazingly, at the same store I find a cheese I've never heard of or read about called Saint Paul, so I buy both. As cheeses go, they couldn't be more different: this one a firm cow cheese, and the Saint Paul a small, creamy goat cheese. But I have another metro-related story to tell -- a part two to this story, if you will -- and now we both know what the cheese will be when I tell it.

Jan 29, 2014

Game Theory: Mille Trous d'Ariège


I've talked about Ticket to Ride, a board game about trains around Europe. But that's just the tip of it. We're big into family game time, especially on cold, rainy winter weekends, and we especially love games that tie in thematically with our lives here.

Memoire de France is a memory-match game with special places around France. We've noticed that the game gets easier as we're here longer and actually know the sights on the cards. Of the 36 pairs, the only ones we haven't seen are Le chateau des Appert, Chateau Yquem, and La Maison Pfister.

Jan 28, 2014

Calling All Laclabphiles and Tyrosemiophiles: Racotin


I thought I knew myself pretty well, but it turns out I'm a mild laclabphile and never realized it. That is to say, I like to collect cheese labels, though in my case it's really only the ones that are a) recent and b) easy to clean, and I do it mostly to help me keep track of information for the myriad of cheeses I'm tasting this year. My husband tolerates this latest collection of mine mostly because it takes up so little space. And because he gets to eat the cheeses that come with them.

Jan 27, 2014

The Bilingual Curse: Bargkass


Now, does she look like she's got the foul-mouth of a sailor?

Today, we are playing school and, naturally, Pippa is the teacher, and I am the student. She smiles at me, and all I see are her freckles, and her loose teeth, and her sparkling eyes as she solemnly informs me that we go to school to learn how to say "fuck" and also how to spell it....P H O Q U E.  Aah, now I understand. The French word "phoque" means "seal" (as in the ones who live in the ocean). I am wondering how I managed to miss including this in my posting about My Husband's French Mistress or F*** That. Perhaps that helps explain why French parents seem less shocked by the word. All they're hearing is "Seal, seal, seal." 

I am reminded of a story when Gigi was younger, and we had just arrived at a playground in San Francisco. She was whining about wanting more tape (I should get stock in 3M the way the kids plow through what the French call "le scotch"), except she mixed up her languages and yelled out, "I want scotch!" It got me a few strange looks, I tell you. As proof, check out the tape ibex (bouquetin) she made for art class.


She received a perfect 20/20, and I'm proud, but now I have to go out and buy more tape.

Recently, Pippa comes home with some French library books. She reads one, a non-fiction book about animals, and when I ask what it's about, she starts telling me what she learned about the Baby Phoque and...you see what's come here....the Mother Phoque, too. I can't tell you what she learned about these animals, because it is all I can do to keep a straight face, as she repeatedly tells me about the Mother Phoque. When an 8-year old says that word, over and over, in such a sweet, happy voice, it is just too funny. I'm sure I should correct her, but I keep hoping she'll have more occasions to mention the Mother Phoque to me.
THE CHEESE: Bargkass
Bargkass is a raw cows' milk, farm-produced cheese that comes from a little village called le Thillot, in Lorraine, near the German and Swiss borders. That helps explain the name of the cheese, which certainly doesn't sound very French. It comes from the traditional local dialect, which is more closely related to German, in which "barg" means mountain and "kass" means cheese, and it's pronounced roughly "bark-ass". It's so Germanic, the locals recommend eating it with black sourdough bread instead of a white French baguette.
A wheel of Bargkass is about a foot across and a few inches high, and because it's aged between six and eight weeks, it has a fairly bold flavor, with a texture somewhere between dry and rubbery. It's salty, but also earthy tasting, and while not spectacular, it's certainly enjoyable. The ridges on the rind of the cheese are caused by the cloth used to press out the liquids during the aging process.

This is the kind of cheese name that children everywhere love to say, because it gives them the excuse to say a "bad word" without getting in trouble. Sort of like being bilingual. 

Jan 26, 2014

Bulging Buildings: Tonnelet

This large, dry-creamy, mild cheese made from raw goat's milk is related to Charolais. But a Tonnelet's crust is softer, brainier, thinner, and less moldy. The affinage period is similar, though; it can be between 3 weeks and 3 months.

Tonnelet is made in the farm-country of Beaujolais region and so, of course, you can get what wine you're supposed to drink with it. It's saltier and goatier as it ages, which is how I prefer it.

Jan 25, 2014

What a Headache: Saint-Germier


Our first pharmacy foray, as Anthony realizes he is out of his Omega-3 fish oil pills.  He does not actually have a cholesterol problem, so much as he has an ego problem, and when the doctor told him his cholesterol was just a smidge too high to be in the perfect zone, he promptly went on a regimen of extra oatmeal and Omega-3s.

In the pharmacy, Anthony and I easily find a bottle of 100 pills, and we pass the bottle back and forth trying to decipher the price tag stuck to the bottle top.  We are often confused by numbers here because they use commas where we use decimal points, and sometimes (but not always) vice versa, and as far as I can tell they sometimes don't write out the hundreth's spot.  So 14,9 could be the equivalent of 14.90€, if I am, in fact, correct.  Since we both are clearly misunderstanding the sticker, we ask le Monsieur who works there for a price clarification, then nearly have the heart-attack we are trying to avoid with the fish pills when he confirms it is 102,9 -- that is 102.90€ or about US $150 -- for the bottle.  Well, that's only 10 times the price for one-fifth the pills.  "I'm sorry, honey, but at those prices, you're just going to have to live with imperfectly high cholesterol.  Now shut up, and have some Camembert."

Another time, I go in to find some face scrub at the pharmacy, and she shows me an itsy bitsy tube for 40€. When I ask if they have something simpler, like Neutrogena, she looks down her nose at me and says, "Well, for cheap cleansers like that, you'll need to go the Monoprix, where they cost 5€." I know she means it as a sarcastic insult, but frankly I take it as sage advice.

So you can understand my sense of impending doom when I run out of my thyroid medication, a prescription pill I need to take daily, and walk into the pharmacy. Not only do I not have a prescription, but I also don't have a suitcase of cash with me. In the US, I pay $10, with insurance covering the rest, each month. Here, I walk in, tell her I'm out of my medication and haven't had a chance to get a new prescription, and approximately 2 seconds later, she walks over to me with a box of exactly the right pills, in a neat pack of 30, and sells them to me for 2,54 -- that's right, about US $4.  This feels so much like winning the lottery that I go into 2 other pharmacies and do the same thing, effectively stocking up for 3 months to give myself some back-up. 

When I get a migraine, and need to return to the pharmacy, I don't know what will happen.  It's like playing Russian roulette around here.  In addition to the fear of pricing is the fact that the last time I had a headache in France was when I was an exchange summer camp counselor during college near Biarritz, in Southern France.  I walked into the camp nurse with a headache, and she handed over a suppository.  I re-explained what was wrong with me, complete with lots of pointing and sign language.  But no, she understood me perfectly, and again tried to hand over the suppository.  Finally, I said to her, "OK, then just give me whatever you give the campers" (who were 3-12 years old).  She held out her hand with the suppository in it. "This is what we give the campers."  Oh screw it.  I'd rather have a headache.

The pharmacist answers all my pain-killer questions, and I do find something that while not exactly Excedrin Migraine (my own personal miracle drug) does seem to have some of the same active ingredients, is taken orally, and only costs 5 times what I wish I were paying. When I ask about pain-killer for children, hoping for a chewable tablet, she shows me some pediatric acetaminophen and tells me, "We have dissolvable powder, syrup, or suppository." Hmm...just how much of a true French experience do we want the girls to have?

THE CHEESE: Saint-Germier

Saint-Germier reminds me of a Camembert but a little gummier, and made with raw sheep's milk in the Pyrénées instead of cow's milk in Normandy. Saint-Germier is a farm-house cheese made by hand (every step of the way) at a farm called Arnoult. It's good, if a little gummy, when cool. But like all cheeses, it's much, much better when it warms up to room temperature. Then it gets all gooey and creamy and divine.

It's strongly flavored of sheep and grasses and fields, just like the many hard cheeses that come from the region. This is an unusual Pyrénées sheep cheese in that it's soft, and produced more in the style of a soft cow's cheese. The sheep -- a herd of 250 Lacaune sheep -- eat in the pasture eight months of the year, and in the stables during the winter, where they are fed hay from the farm's own fields. This connection to the local earth comes through in the complex flavor.


I end up praying to the saints when I'm feeling germy or (even worse -- germier), and I have to go see what the people at the pharmacy will try to sell me. And though this cheese is not Camembert, it's very much like a Camembert -- just the thing to clog up Anthony's arteries.


Jan 24, 2014

'Tis the Season: Ecume de Wimereux

For a fine French food fan, 'tis the season, the most wonderful season of all: truffle season. Truffle hunting season opens on December 1, and a few weeks later, coincidentally just in time for the holidays, the truffles appear on the menus in full force. In risottos. Shaved over soups. Mixed into eggs. Slivered on fish. And, of course, mixed with delicious cheeses.

Jan 23, 2014

This Too Is Paris: Le Petit Moulé


When I look out my window or walk around my neighborhood, I see gorgeous old buildings that look just like the Paris of your dreams. But this, too, is Paris...

Jan 22, 2014

Dining Doggies: Mâconnais


I may not be able to get a French carte de séjour to save my life, but dogs are practically granted full citizenship here, without hesitation.

They are not just allowed but even warmly welcomed all sorts of places that would be taboo in the US, including high-end stores and restaurants, too. Big dogs, little dogs, outdoors, indoors.

Jan 21, 2014

Getting Your Goat: Tommette de Marilhou


France has a variety of goat breeds: from the Alps, Alpine -- which is the most common and represented in France -- and Saanen -- beautiful white goats from near the Swiss border; Poitevine -- black and found more in the west, Poitou region; Corse -- raised originally for meat; Pyrénées -- shaggy black and brown; Rove -- brownish from the Bouches-des-Rhones on Mediterranean coast, used for Picodon and Banon; Des Fosses -- gorgeous white and gray shaggy, live near the Channel, in Normandy and Brittany (in small amounts, as this normally is cow country); Massif Central -- black and white shaggy; and Provençale -- gray and white shaggy from Provence, and used in making Banon also.

There are two farmers on the edge of the Marilhou river, by Trizac who have 50 goats that they milk from March to October. I am told by Monsieur Laurent Dubois himself -- one of the great cheesemongers of Paris (and, therefore, of the world) -- that they treat the goats like their own kids, if you'll pardon the pun. The goats live attached to the house in a barn that I'm told is much more modern than the home. Or rather, the barn and area for milking and cheesemaking has long been electrified, sanitized, and modernized, whereas the home only recently got electricity. Literally.

But the days for this level of care for the goats, and the quality of the resulting cheese, may be numbered. You know that old stereotype of how goats will eat anything? Well, evidently, they really will. So the goatherders have to actually follow the goats around for hours and hours on end to watch what they eat -- carefully steering them towards good herbs and plants that will delicately flavor their milk.

THE CHEESE: Tommette du Marilhou

Wow. Never before has research yielded so little information. If you google images for "Tommette du Marilhou", you will get exactly three choices: cartoon butterflies, cartoon umbrella, or cartoon of a horse pulling a cart with the words "H.J.Heinz Co." above it. Perhaps when you google it now that I've published this posting, you will also see my picture. Who knows? There's not much more information in a regular google search, frankly, and none in any printed information. So I need to go to the store itself.

It's a raw goat's milk cheese from the Trizac region, on the edge of the Marilhou river, and it's very thick, with a texture between creamy and crumbly. The taste is herby, grassy, earthy, and quite lovely. Laurent Dubois claims it is one his personal favorite goat cheeses, so that's really saying something.

It's a fermier cheese -- meaning the cheese is made with milk only from the goats on this farm. The cheese is aged 4-6 weeks at least, but it ages well. The last of it is sold in the store around four months later, not to be seen again till the next distant batch. And you'll only see it in a few stores in the first place -- basically the most elite cheese sellers in Paris: Laurent Dubois and Quatrehomme, for example.


Laurent Dubois says that he usually takes only one or two cheeses from each farm and producer, in order to get the best only from each of them. But in this particular case, he'll take everything the farm has to offer, since all of it is the crème de la crème (goat crème, as it were).

On a completely unrelated note: curious about the expression "getting your goat"? It refers to the practice of stabling goats with horses to keep the horses calm. When somebody gets your goat, your horse gets all agitated (and, I guess, so do you).


Jan 20, 2014

Keyboqrd Proble,s: U Lentu Brebis Corse

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Jan 19, 2014

The Accordion Factor: Aligot


Our lovely view can look like this:

Or like this:

Or like this:

Holidays, weekends, and gorgeous weather brings people out in droves, and we live with a slight dread that this can translate at any moment to people talking, smoking, drunkenly singing, and -- avert your eyes if the horror is too much for you -- playing the accordion at all hours of the night. (I don't say "day and night" because Parisians start their morning slowly....)

On any given day, we run across at least one accordionist. Often, it's two -- one on either end of our small pedestrian bridge. Rain, snow, or shine.


There is often a jazz band in the middle. Or two. They start staking out their spots in the morning, then wait a few hours for the passers-by to start passing by.


There are other street performers as well, some regulars: the bike-show guy, the classical-violinist, the bubble-making guy who does double duty as a street-cleaning statue, and (at night) the crazy home-made-pirate-bicycle-ship-that-is-politically-protesting-everything opera-singing guy, for example.


Our very favorite is Fred, aka Mr. F, who does a mesmerizing act with balls and the diablo. We've gotten so friendly with him, the girls and their friends regularly dance before his shows to help him draw in an audience. When he's not here, he sometimes performs for Cirque du Soleil (not on the main stage, mind you, but as a roving entertainer).


There are hordes of people coming for the island's famous ice cream, and for the beautiful views of Notre Dame, and for the charming cafés right beneath our window. And naturally, this brings in the buskers. It was only a matter of time until our girls thought of busking themselves. Here they are on a quiet Sunday morning with a neighborhood friend, dancing their hearts out and passing the (pink cowboy) hat. They make no money at this endeavor but are extremely proud when an old man joins them for a dance. Gigi also bravely sings a song a cappella at an unattended mike one evening. She  earns no money, but enough praise to encourage her to consider busking for her Sunday supper from now on.

As for those accordionists, we hear a lot of "La Vie en Rose." In fact, there is one older busker who posts himself outside the garden to Notre Dame and plays nothing but "La Vie en Rose," in varying versions. I think even he is bored of it, because he now alters the song so dramatically, it's not always recognizable. Begging the question, why not play something else?

Other regular songs from the accordionists on the bridge include Dr. Zhivago's theme, "O Solo Mio," and an old French song called "La Seine" (not to be confused with the song "La Seine" from the new animated film Un Monstre a Paris, A Monster in Paris). For some reason, I also hear several songs from Fiddler on the Roof, both from the accordionists and, more logically, from the violinist. And there's occasionally some Eric Clapton or Simon & Garfunkel. Of course we hear "Milord" by Edith Piaf, though you would think there would be more of her songs in the air.

But I don't meant to imply that it's all bad. If living here is like being plopped in the middle of a movie set, then this music serves as the perfect soundtrack. When I'm writing in the apartment during the weekdays, sometimes I can hear the faint strain of the accordion, or the chattering of people walking by, and even though I'm alone and sitting in silence, I feel like I'm still part of the city. And nothing will make you feel like you're in Paris more than walking around outside looking at the Seine, and Notre Dame, with that soundtrack playing. The girls, of course, love it. During the after school, weekend, and vacation hours (which is when they're around to enjoy it), there's nearly always a concert -- and a veritable party -- going on outdoors. Last night, Anthony and the girls stood on the balcony, enjoying a classical piano recital while I cooked dinner. When we return to San Francisco, will it feel boring and tame? Or blissfully quiet?

In a correspondence with David Downie, the author of a wonderful book of essays (one of my very favorite things ever written about France) called Paris, Paris: Journey Into the City of Light, he writes me, "Welcome to Paris, and god bless anyone who can listen with charity and grace to the street performers. How long will that last on your part? We have now had 25 years of them under our windows in the Marais, and I am verging on the homicidal."

So we appreciate it for the moment, but still we fear the late spring and summer: When it's hot out, and we want to open our windows, will be letting in too much smoke, chatter, and accordion? We'll see. And so will all of our visitors. What we really need now is for the new trend on our bridge to be an invasion of retro-French mimes.

Photo from mimethegap.com

Aligot is the name for both a cheese and a preparation that uses that cheese. The dish comes from the Aubrac region, on the plateaus in southern France, and is basically puréed potatoes mixed with cream, butter, and piping hot cheese -- originally Laguiole or Cantal, but now the perfect tomme for this is sold as Aligot cheese itself (though it is basically milder Laguiole). Actually, you might see the cheese sold as Aligot, Aligot de l'Aubrac, or even Tome Fraîche de l'Aubrac (tome being an alternate spelling for tomme). Aligot comes from raw, whole milk from -- ideally -- Aubrac or French Simmental cows, and is aged in a large, pressed wheel of cheese for at least 4 months, and sometimes up to a year. Because the mashed potato dish is pretty much its raison d'être, it is sometimes sold already mixed together. When sold as a cheese, it just looks like an enormous crustless block.

This may qualify as my worst photo ever. But you can see the edge of the cheese, wrapped in plastic.

If you order Aligot in a bistro or brasserie, they will almost always come to your table and scrape off piping hot cheese into your potatoes. Why at the table? Because when I say piping hot, I mean piping hot. It's super elastic, and as it cools, it becomes a chewy mass. For this dish, the potatoes are also puréed within an inch of their lives, so it doesn't just turn out to be cheesy mashed potatoes, but more like cheesy wallpaper glue. I know; I'm really selling it here, but many (other) people love it.

The ancestor of this -- with bread and melted cheese -- used to be prepared by the monks of Aubrac as a way to welcome pilgrims on the road to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, a voyage that's recounted by David Downie in his latest, fabulous book on France called Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James. In the 19th century, potatoes replaced the bread, and it spread into restaurants and up to Paris in the 20th century.


Aligot is very stretchy like an accordion. It's also very cheesy, like some of the street performers.

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