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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