Apr 5, 2014

A 1970s Birthday: Bonde de Gâtine


Yes, that's seven bowls of different kinds of candy, and I guarantee you, not one of them is filled with organic, fair-trade, artisan bonbons. That's what we're dealing with here, folks. These are birthday parties before the health-food craze, before the advent of $800 rental and entertainment fees, before party favors became as nice as the gifts themselves. You're invited to a French kid's birthday party! (And it may look familiar -- just like your own 1970s childhood birthday party.)

How's a San Franciscan to survive? Just fine, it turns out, and I'm pleased to report the girls don't even eat that much of the birthday candy. Besides retrieving my children over-sugared from other people's fêtes, there are many, many wonderful advantages to French birthday parties -- especially when I'm the one giving them. I love the time travel back to simpler days.

In the past three weekends, I've thrown a birthday party for both of our girls (since their real birthdays are basically in the summer, we throw it around the half-birthday mark). In both cases, I have a four-hour party: 14 girls at Pippa's and 12 girls at Gigi's. Get this: Even though both are lunch parties, I never think to ask if kids/families were okay with the menu, and I don't offer any choices (nothing vegetarians, lactose-free, etc). We have pizza at one and chicken fingers at the other, with vegetables, fruit, and bread. For the big treat, my girls prefer brownies to birthday cake, and I don't even frost them. I just stick some M&Ms in it, plant some candles, and call it a day. Not one child has any food allergy that I am warned about. They just all eat everything. I literally cannot imagine inviting 30 kids over in San Francisco and not hearing about at least a dozen instances of egg, nut, lactose and gluten allergies and intolerances.

The pizza and nuggets come from Picard. I am simply too Californian to set out bowls of candies, but it doesn't mean I avoid sugar. I jazz up Gigi's brownies with ice cream, caramel sauce (from a jar), whipped cream (real, but from a spray can, that the kids get to spray themselves), and more M&Ms. I make Pippa's brownies from scratch but then by Gigi's party, I cheat with American imported brownie mix (I avoid French brownie mix like the plague, since French brownies are generally horrible).

Depending on the age, the weather, and which year's party it's been, we've done art projects,  crazy-dress-up modeling shots, Wii just dance, treasure hunts, silly relay-type games, and playing on the playground in the park behind Notre Dame. The extent of the decoration is that we blow up some balloons around the apartment.


The presents are thoughtful and appropriate and modest: a good book, an arts-and-crafts kit, a small bracelet. No thank-you cards are written, because the party favor serves as thank-you. It's generally a small bag, with a few things in it. Often, the girls come home simply with a bag of candy and a little plastic toy. I like to avoid candy and often send the kids home with colorful stationery gear. This year, the big girls leave with their art project (découpage picture frames), flower seed balls, a hand-made friendship bracelet, and a few chocolate eggs. About the only nod to the fact that we're not in the 1970s is that we are able to edit and print a digital picture of them taken at the party by the time they go home.

Well, there are a few other signs. Further proof that this birthday party didn't happen in upstate New York in the 1970s: the Wii dancing. These girls "Just Dance" on the Wii, whereas we used to just dance on the floor.

Also for one of her birthday parties, Gigi doesn't even want brownies, just chocolate éclairs.

And finally, just look at this setting for the relay race! It's not exactly what my backyard looked like when I was this age.

Some parents either have apartments that are too small, are just not the party-throwing types, or want to take advantage of something in Paris. They generally take the kids to a local activity: Ours have been invited to a children's theater performance, art museum atelier for kids, magic museum, rock climbing, and ice skating. But the parents don't rent out special birthday rooms and go crazy; they just buy tickets (and usually go home for gift-opening and cake anyway). My friend Michelle once showed up with a half dozen kids to the ice rink only to find out it was closed and had to shuttle them over to a different rink.

Having said my girls don't like birthday cake, I should clarify: they love 98% of the cakes served at the French kids' birthdays, and about 2% of the ones served in the US. The French do not serve sugary sheet cakes with even sugarier frosting; they mostly serve deep chocolate mousse cakes bought at the pâtisserie -- no words, images, or three-dimensional movie characters on the top.

Honestly, people are just more laid back about the birthdays here, and I -- for one -- absolutely love that. The kids certainly don't complain, either.
THE CHEESE: Bonde de Gâtine
Bonde de Gâtine is a dense plug of a raw goat's milk cheese from that goatiest of places, Poitou-Charentes in the Gâtine du Poitou, to be precise. It's about the size of a can of beans, and feels twice as heavy. Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. Let's just say it's substantial. When you cut inside, you see why. Dense, heavy, and sliceably thick. The cheese melts in the mouth, at which point it become creamy. 
Creamy...and delicious, that is. After four to six weeks of aging, it's got a lightly savory, salty, goaty, farmy flavor and it's a smart choice of a goat cheese. Look, it even has a brainy crust to drive home that fact.
"Gater" means "to spoil" -- not in the sense of spoiled milk, spoiled food, or spoiled cheese, but in the sense of a child who's spoiled rotten. This is not, actually, what the cheese is named after, but I can't help but see this cheese name as a "band of spoiled little girls," which reminds me too, too much of a horrid, over-the-top, ultra-materialistic, show-offy American birthday party for kids. Sometimes it's nice to be 30 years behind.
The term "gâtine" (originally "gastine") actually come from the ancient province/region names of Gâtinois and Gâtinais. The word "gâtine" is itself a fairly archaic word which means "cultivated, inhabited land" but it also can mean "pillage and destruction" -- kind of what it feels like after a crazed group of sugared-up, present-happy, kid birthday partiers have just been in the house.


  1. Very interesting post !
    I had the reverse experience when we moved from France to L.A. (or, more specifically, Beverly Hills) with our 3 daughters .
    i just couldn't believe the fuss (and the money!) that went into birthday parties . (and some for 3 years old children !)
    There was no way I was going to compete, so I always did our parties the French ways, and the kids usually loved them : art projects, cooking sessions, treasure hunts, just what you are mentioning .

    (and let's not forget that in Beverly Hills, you are expected to feed and "entertain" the nannies as well … ;-) … )



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