Apr 30, 2014

Wednesday Politics: Mimolette


When Pippa comes home and proclaims, "I don't like President Hollande. I'm against him. My whole class is against him!," it is her first independent expression of political outrage, as opposed to simply repeating my own political outrage.

What on Earth could the French government have done to inspire this sort of unified opposition from a bunch of kids with loose teeth? It re-introduced school on Wednesday mornings, where there had been a day off. The day is used by most French kids with a stay-at-home parent or nanny for a little lie in, extended pajama time, and day of extracurricular activities.

But it's not just the elementary school students and parents that are opposed (middle and high school students already have school on Wednesday mornings, at least, so are not affected). Public school teachers in Paris went on strike many times last school year to protest the proposed change -- which increased neither the number of hours of class time nor the amount of teacher's pay.


That bears re-stating, because it's highly counter-intuitive. In accordance with the Hollande-led plan, the Paris government took away 1½ hours from the end of Tues and Fri, then makes up those three hours by forcing everybody to come in on Wed morning. The schools provide day care for the Tues and Friday afternoons, but this is not as enticing as it sounds when you realize that Parisian recess yards are essentially poorly-supervised, overcrowded, paved courtyards, and that they aren't willing to pay teachers but rather import minimum-wage, unlicensed, untrained monitors.

Teachers, therefore, are now paid the same amount, but have to come in on Wed mornings, and vacate and clean up their classrooms for the 3-4:30 use on Tues and Fri. If I had to work on my former day off to make the same amount of pay I used to have, I'd go on strike, too.

As Gigi is now in middle school, the change didn't affect her. And as the private schools were allowed to opt out, it turns out it doesn't affect Pippa either. The two of us can still lounge around doing homework and English-language projects on Wednesday mornings. If the strikers had wanted to be more effective in preventing the change, they should have brought in the serious heat for their marches: what would've scared the government instead of a bunch of teachers and parents? How about a mob of angry eight-year olds.

THE CHEESE: Mimolette

Mimolette is a big, hard, orange ball of pasteurized cow's milk cheese that many describe as looking like a cantaloupe. It's made near Lille, in the north of France. This leads to another name used for it: Boule de Lille. The cheese is made, purposely, in the style of the Dutch cheese, Edam, which leads to yet another name for it: Vieux Hollande.

The Vieux (old) part of the name may or may not well-earned. Some say the cheese was created by the request of Louix XIV in the 17th century, looking to make a French product that could take the place of Edam. The annatto is added to turn it orange and differentiate it from the original. Other sources say this French cheese did not appear until the early 20th century, before World War I.

Ironically, it's most common name -- Mimolette -- comes from the French word "mi-molle" meaning "half-soft". Which this cheese is not. It may be half soft during the fabrication process, but that's hardly a great basis for a name. Once you actually buy it in the store, it is generally as hard as the rock it appears to be, after having been aged between 6 months and 2 years. As for the size of a whole Mimolette: Think bowling ball. The ruts on the outside of the ball are caused by mites, which some might find a mite gross. But you really shouldn't, whatever mites they are (or might have been) they've been safely eaten in this cheese for centuries.

People say it has a hazelnut-like flavor, but in fact it's less sweet and nutty than other cheeses, including Parmigiano (to which is it sometimes, inexplicably, compared), Comté, or an aged Gouda. Despite the fact that Americans in Paris often use Mimolette for mac & cheese because of the color, I'm not a Mimolette mac & cheese fan. The flavor just seems slightly off to me. In general, that's my feeling about Mimolette, frankly. I love Goudas and Edams, hard cheeses, and nuttiness, yet somehow I just don't love a Mimolette.


This change comes about under Francois Hollande, a man who, as comedian Stephen Colbert points out, can't even decide which country to be named after. I myself have a hard time deciding which cheese to use for this posting, and am tempted by Edam Français, a cheese that is both Dutch (Edam) and French (français) in honor of President Hollande. However, I've already decided to use that cheese for the posting on 4 Star School Lunches. I consider changing the cheese on that posting to Mimolette, since it also appears on some of the school lunch menus. But when I research Mimolette, I discover its other name -- Vieux Hollande -- and that seems perfect for this story after all. So it seems I could swap out theses two cheese with these two stories, and it would make sense either way.

I have to tell you, I'm tempted to find an alternative and keep Mimolette for at least three other stories I have in mind. Apparently, Mimolette is a cheese that just lends itself to story connections and fits into many slots.

Apr 29, 2014

Call Me Master: Brie de Chèvre aux Figues

When you see Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Worker in France) printed in huge letters on the store front of my favorite local cheese shop, the Laurent Dubois, it's not just a sales tactic, or a subjective boast. It is fact: the title of Best Worker of France (for cheese affineurs) has been conferred upon Monsieur Dubois by the president of the French republic himself at the Élysée palace.

Apr 28, 2014

Magic on the Med: Compostelle


The girls' favorite part of the whole Languedoc trip is at the end: two really magical days in the picturesque Mediterranean beach town of Collioure.

Anthony works on all-important rock-skimming techniques with the girls, and Pippa decides it is of utmost importance to collect every possible piece of sea glass. She bypasses any shells and heads straight for the greens, blues, clears, and occasional yellows and violets, going at this task with the dedication of an athlete training for the Olympics. She is a champion sea-glass-finder.


It's the perfect kind of town for relaxing. Normally on our vacations, we are so busy seeing and doing that we end up nearly as tired as we started (but much happier!). So every once in a while, we welcome an actual day of rest. This is the kind of place we hang out on the beach, shop for summer clothes and souvenirs in the little streets, and eat -- frequently. 

It's a charming town and, frankly, we are glad for the respite from education and castles -- so much so that we never even manage to step in the 800-year old Château Royal here, though we walk by it dozens of times and certainly photograph it enough.

Collioure is a bright spot on the Mediterranean, and even in April, it's warm enough to hang out on the beach. But only children can go further in the water than their ankles. I once got hypothermia (true, profound hypothermia) by scuba diving just a tiny bit further south from here in a Spanish small town with a big name -- Torroella de Montgrí i l'Estartit -- in the spring. And I'm not about to make that mistake twice. Don't believe what anybody says about the Mediterranean; if you want to swim, it's South Pacific all the way, baby. This sea is cold until mid summer!

We are starting to feel like real Frenchies: We are about as far south as one can go and still be in France, over 800km from Paris, yet Gigi runs into a former Parisian classmate on the beach.


And now goodbye to the four Cs (Catharism, Carcassonne, Catalan and Collioure) and the cold seas, and we're on our way back to the land of the four Ps: Paris, pollution, and pavement. Yes, I know that's only three.

THE CHEESE: Compostelle

This is an unusual looking cheese, and also one that should make the Top 10 Most Beautiful list, thanks to the impression of the scallop shell in the cheese. It makes quite an impression on me (ba-dum-bum).

Compostelle is a raw goat's milk cheese made by the Fromagerie Etoile du Quercy, in Lot, on the path of the famous pilgrimage to Compostelle. The rind is delicate, and so is the flavor and smell -- both lightly goaty and fresh. It's a dry-creamy cheese, as opposed to oozy wet-creamy. Etoile du Quercy also produces Saint-Marcellin, Saint-Félicien, Rocamadour, and other better-known cheeses, along with this more unusual and distinctive one.


Though this cheese comes from a couple departments to the west, it reminds me so strongly (for obvious reasons) of the ocean and of Pippa picking through the seashells to find the glass that I simply have to use it for this story. Do I wish there was a sea-glass themed or crystal green colored cheese? A little. Am I afraid that I'll wish I still had this cheese available to me later on for some story about scallops, or seafood? A little. But Colliure deserves a gorgeous, sea-themed cheese, too.

Apr 27, 2014

Olé (Almost Spanish): Bergeronnette

Our next Cathar destination is a fortress -- Salses. It doesn't have the pizazz of Carcassonne or Peyrepertuse, especially since we are forced to take an hour-long tour in a French so thickly accented with Catalan that not even the girls or I can understand it. Well, we're pretty sure it's French.

What it lacks in pizzazz, it makes up for in the history lesson, if you're into that sort of thing. Salses was built around 1500 by Spanish rulers King Ferdinand II d'Aragon and Isabelle de Castille and is considered, architecturally, to be something between a castle and a fort. What sticks with me the most, from our Catalan-French guide, is that this is a rare fortress whose main goal was not necessarily to keep people out: A major part of its defense is that it's a complete labyrinth inside, with strange short hallways that you must bend over to walk through. These sorts of things, including murderholes inside the kitchen, even, were done purposely to make any invaders an easy target for the soldiers stationed inside.


The fort was incorporated into French territory by the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrénées that redefined the French-Spanish border. More recently, somebody scratched his name into the rocks, which I usually see as jerky graffiti. But here, with a German name during the World War II years, it seems like an amazing bit of history, layered on top off more history.

You can definitely tell this was once Spanish territory. In architecture as well as language, there's a definite Spanish/Moorish flavor in the area. At the nearby 11th century Abbey de Fontfroide, I love the arches and doors surrounding the cloister. This is my fantasy architecture, and if Anthony and I ever build ourselves a villa somewhere, I will be the one pushing for this courtyard. This abbey is where the assassination of a monk was the catalyst for the crusade that wiped out the Cathars.


THE CHEESE: Bergeronnette

Bergeronnette is a raw sheep's milk cheese that can be eaten fresh (as young as 6-9 days) or aged. It's the kind of cheese that used to be made by each farm for its own consumption. Nowadays, you're more likely to get your Bergeronnette from a store than your own sheep. The cheese -- under the name Pérail du Fédou Bergeronnette  -- won a silver medal at the 2nd Olympics of Mountain Cheeses in 2003. And it won a gold medal in a cheese contest of the Languedoc Roussillon region in 2008.

When it is young, Bergeronnette has a very mild, milky taste which gets gamier (more of a sheep flavor) and stronger as the cheese matures. But even at its strongest, it's a mellow, oozy cheese that's easy to eat and love.


A lovely, interesting cheese from the region with a wonderful taste au lait (of milk), which is pronounced "olé" and, therefore, is almost Spanish. Salses and the Abbey are both almost Spanish as well, having been originally built in Spanish territory before become French.


Apr 26, 2014

Bird's Eye View: Cathare

Suffering from castle-overload, we only have the heart to visit one real Cathar castle, but it's a doozy: the nearly unpronounceable Peyrepertuse, which was built high in the Pyrénées Orientales starting in the 11th century. It's pretty easy to see why it was a good defensive spot. It's practically impenetrable even with a car and admission tickets. In order to get up to the top, there is sweating, and some whining, involved.
Considering the castle is nearly 1000 years old and is an ungodly remote, exposed area, it's rather impressive that it's, well, as impressive at it is. It's not hard to imagine it as a powerful spot for the local Lord. It's more difficult to imagine that anybody managed to overtake it, though I suppose, strategically, that a good blockade would pretty much strangle it over time. And, in fact, this particular castle of Peyreptruse was never attacked during the Crusade against the Cathars. But it was surrounded and then surrendered to the French Crusaders on May 22, 1217, after which it was transferred to the French, in whose power it has remained since.

We enjoy touring the ruins, especially with our ecoustiguides. At least the kids can pretend they're playing with electronics. Some of the lower ruins are from the 11th century, during the Cathar reign and the time of the Aragon kings. The upper portions were built under 13th century French King Louis IX (later Saint Louis, and the person after whom the island in the Seine where we live is named). The entire castle was abandoned in 1659 when the Spanish border was moved further south and the area lost its strategic importance.

You may be wondering what this word "Cathar" ("Cathare" in French) means. Well, Catharism was a religion that flourished here in a tiny corner of southern France in the 11th century. It was largely a peaceful, tolerant, open, and caring religion -- possibly a version of Christianity (though this continues to be debated, and certainly the Catholics of the time considered it quite heretical). The Cathars themselves called themselves Christians and believed in a good God, as well as his evil adversary. They believed in reincarnation, vegetarianism, and a non-hierarchical church, with the church leaders being men and women working alongside each other and leading simple lives that were also productive in their communities. They believed in equality of the sexes, of the classes, and that sexual intercourse is not sinful. The Cathars called the Catholics "the Church of Wolves" and the Catholics called the Cathars "the Synagogue of Satan". Catharism took hold in Languedoc in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Crusades, so naturally this peaceful religion was brutally and mercilessly wiped from the face of the Earth just as soon as the Catholic Church could get around to it. 


Cathare, sometimes called Catal, is a farmhouse, raw goat's milk cheese, made in the Languedoc Roussillon region of southern France, in Cathar country, of course. It's a young cheese, aged a minimum of two weeks only, though the flavor deepens with further aging. I buy it ahead of time and let it age another week or so at home even, and the smell and flavor intensify in just that time.

The beautiful, ashed rind is delicate and miraculously decorated with the Occitan cross. It's such a striking cheese, it's automatically the one that everybody -- young and old -- wants to try first. I didn't know about this cheese when I made my list of the 10 most beautiful cheeses, but if I had, it clearly would have beaten out some of the others. It's simply divine (pardon the pun).


Has there ever been a cheese better designed to go with a story than this cheese that is not only named after the Cathar religion, but also has the Cathar symbol (the local Occitan cross) ingeniously imprinted in the mold? Has there ever been a more beautiful cheese? Has there ever been a more delicious goat cheese? In all cases, I think the answer is a resounding "no!"

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