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Feb 27, 2014

History on Every Corner: Coulommiers

THE STORY:
 
One of the things I love most about living in the center of Paris is that virtually every where you look, there's amazing history. I'm not even talking about major monuments and historical sites. All over the city you'll see paddles giving information (in French only), but they're especially concentrated near us, as are the secret un-marked sites. You may have visited Paris a dozen times and never seen -- or at least noticed -- any of these.

 

For example, I sometimes find myself walking down this medieval lane in the 5th arrondissement, in which sits the Procope, generally considered the first French café.

  

Whether or not that's true, we do know that more recently, it was visited by Voltaire, Robespierre, Benjamin Franklin, and a few other folks you might have heard of. It was an important meeting spot where much of the French Revolution -- and some of the American Revolution -- was dreamed up and plotted out. Just across the alley, in a non-descript building my friend used to live in, the guillotine was perfected. It's a tiny, unassuming spot, not on many tours or special maps, but it certainly holds a big wallop in terms of historical importance.

 

One of the things that's so fun about Paris, especially as an American, is the history -- the old stuff, the really, really old stuff -- that is just everywhere. In the courtyard of this same building is a metal stool. By this point, it is quite unusual in Parisian architecture, but a couple hundred years ago, these would have been everywhere, as steps to help people mount and dismount from their horses or horse-drawn carriages. I am told there are only two remaining in public spaces in Paris.

 

You might find yourself in a 2000 year old Roman arena,



or outside a medieval duke's palace turned library,



or peering in at the gardens in this mansion-turned-free city museum that most people ignore.



On his way to the metro, Anthony usually walks by the two oldest non-palace residential buildings in Paris (left photo), which date back definitively to the 16th century and quite possibly to the 14th. Another medieval colombage-style building (plaster and wood, on the right side) sits just a tiny block away.

 
 
This restaurant on the next island over boasts of its seven centuries of history, starting in the 13th century with a famous legend of some local doves and including visits from France's most famous Robin Hood-like character named Cartouche in the early 1700s.
 

One of the great high schools in the country happens to be around the corner. For them, their 450th anniversary is already old news. As my friend Daniel pointed out, that means Lycee Louis le Grand was already 73 when Harvard was founded in the US. Or, as I prefer to think of it, 183 years old when Princeton, then called the College of New Jersey, was founded.



For more recent history, there's a hidden World War II deportation memorial I can see from my balcony,



and a plaque by this store that's going out of business (The Fairies of Bengale) saying that "Inside this building, under the Germans terror, was located the Paris-North Liberation cell, movement of the French Resistance, Paris region.

 

The French Revolution is all around us.


Basically, there's virtually no neighborhood photo I have that couldn't be included in this list of historically interesting sights. But history hits you in unexpected and more personal ways here in France than the when we lived in America. For example, in one of Pippa's recent class assignments, the children need to tell something about their ancestors. One of her dearest friends announces to the class that her great-great-several-times-back-grandfather was beheaded by guillotine during the French Revolution. Perhaps he's on this list at the Conciergerie.



I've never heard about decapitation being part of grade-school show-and-tell before. It certainly does make history come to life. Though, obviously, it had rather the opposite effect on her ancestor.

THE CHEESE: Coulommiers

Coulommiers is not only as old as the much-more-famous Brie, it may even be Brie's ancestor. It is a raw cow's milk cheese that comes from around the Paris area: a village called Coulommiers, within Seine-et-Marne in the region of Île-de-France.  The taste and texture are somewhat akin to a Brie -- but not the industrial Brie you're thinking of. Instead, you need to be thinking of a much more elegant and artisanal Brie de Melun.


It's aged for three or weeks in cool caves, at the end of which time it has a thin crust blanketed in white, a flavor of deep earth, and a fabulously sticky texture. Coulommiers is often mixed with complementary flavors -- mushroom or peppercorn, specifically. This picture is of a peppered variety, which explains the gray ashy layer in the middle. The thick gob of pepper adds a great kick in addition to the delicious stink of the Coulommiers. Since it's a salty, savory cheese, it goes together beautifully: salt and pepper.

THE CONNECTION:



I pick my cheeses to buy and taste fairly randomly -- whether because they look good, I like the name, they remind me of a good story to tell, they hail from a certain region, or the cheesemonger recommends them. And just like walking around my neighborhood, while I research them, I often stumble across history. This one, hailing from the Paris region and with a very ancient lineage, seems particularly appropriate. It turns out that Coulommiers is a cheese from the medieval times -- or even earlier (though not this one that I taste, specifically, of course). It's a delicious cheese, and one that you can really lose your head over.

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