Apr 17, 2014

French Bull(dog): Baguette Laonnaise


It's finally official: French kissing is now French. As of last year, it has finally made it into the French dictionary as its own word -- "galocher". French people are quick to point out that just because there wasn't a word for it before, it doesn't mean people didn't actually do it anyway.

But that begs the question: What other so-called "French" things aren't really French?

French Fries:

Gone may be the days of Freedom Fries, but French fries are here to stay. Yes, the French really do eat them. Of course, here they are simply called "fries". They are served at nearly every restaurant, with seemingly every meal. Okay, I exaggerate. But the point is, if you want a "steak-frites" (the classic meal of steak and fries), you won't have to look far. Most likely, any restaurant you choose will serve you fries. But not ketchup.

French Bulldogs, and while we're at it, French Poodles:

French bulldogs are bred from small, reject English bulldogs that came over with a wave of workers to Normandy in the 1800s. We almost never see French bulldogs here in Paris, though there must be some, somewhere, beyond this guy in his mariner shirt and beret. What we do see are a lot of Bichon Frisés, Shih Tzus, Beagles, and a few French Poodles, especially miniature, though these are not currently in fashion. These days, the main criteria for a Paris dog is that it's small, cute, and ideally fluffy. Or else, it's a Chihuahua.

French Toast:

My aunt came to Paris and wanted French toast. It was remarkably difficult to translate, first of all. She tried "pain français" and "toast français" to no avail, since these translate in a French person's mind as simply French bread or plain old toast. What we call French toast is based on basically a bread-pudding thing the French make to use up stale bread. Hence the name "pain perdu" which means, literally "lost bread". While pain perdu is a real French thing, you rarely if ever, see it on a menu or in a bakery, and when you do, it's normally as a dessert, served with crème anglaise (English cream, which may or not be English).

French Dressing:

The sweet orange stuff that comes in a bottle and goes on your salad? Not French. (And, in my mind, not really dressing, either.) Actual French dressing -- as in the thing that usually covers the greens on your salad in a restaurant -- is a vinaigrette of oil and vinegar with a drop of Dijon mustard and maybe some herbs.

French Braids:

Braids are called "traisses" here, and yes, the girls wear them, especially little girls and especially on the day they have swim class at school, when they have to put their hair up into the swim caps. Mostly, they do not actually do French braids here but, rather, regular old braids à la Little House on the Prairie. Still, we do sometimes see (and do) French braids, but the French call them, funnily enough, "traisses africaines" ("African braids").

French Bread:

Of course it's French, but here it's just called "bread". The classic loaf that we call French bread can be ordered as a "baguette" which actually means stick (and, for example, is also used in the phrase "baguette magique" or "magic wand" and can also be used for "chopsticks"), and refers to the shape of the crusty bread, sticking out of its telltale paper bag.

French Press and, while we're at it, French Roast:

French roast is not actually French. It's just dark coffee that's named after the French, probably to invoke the romance of sitting in a café drinking coffee. Ironically, I am told by my most avid coffee-loving friends that French coffee is nothing to write home about. So, when they're using their subpar coffee beans to make their mediocre coffee, do they actually use a French press? I've never seen one, except the one at our own apartment that we brought with us from San Francisco. Pretty much everything here is espresso, made with espresso machines. So the French are not drinking French roast out of French presses, but rather Italian coffee out of Italian machines.

THE CHEESE: Baguette Laonnais

Baguette Laonnais is an orange, washed-rind raw cow's milk cheese from Laon in northern France, towards the Belgian border. In nearly all respects, it's like a slightly milder Maroilles and, in fact, is a related cheese, made with Maroilles cheese then mixed with herbs like tarragon, pepper, or cloves. The stinky orange mold comes from being washed with salt water in the cellars where it ages, over a 2-4 month period.

I'm not a huge fan of Maroilles, so you can imagine that I am relieved that the store where I buy the cheese is willing to give me a little sliver to taste of an open Baguette, and thus I do not have to buy, consume, and either store or discard 8€ ($11) of a stinky cheese I don't love, especially since I already have some super stinky remnants -- notably a half of a Deauville -- waiting in the freezer (yes, you can freeze cheese. Yes, I'll write more about it sometime) for some unsuspecting visitor to unleash it on.

I don't hate it, mind you. Like a Maroilles, the texture is somewhat creamy -- in a soft, rubbery, melt-in-the-mouth sort of way. It's not quite as strong as a Maroilles -- or at least the particular one I try isn't. But it's still mighty pungent, and there's just no mistaking that orange rind. I think I could probably train myself to love orange washed-rind cheeses, but with so many delicious ashy goat cheeses around, I'm not sure why I would. I will say that if you want a splash of orange and a hint of stink on your cheese platter, this one will do just fine, and I can eat it and enjoy it...enough. Somebody loves it, though, and maybe you're that person.

The cheese can also be called Baguette du Laon (a simple variation on the name), Baguette de Thiérache (a name the bridges the northern areas of France and Belgian territory), Losange (meaning "Diamond", as it's sometimes made diamond shaped), and Dauphin (meaning "Prince").

The history of this cheese is also somewhat in dispute. Some say that under the name Dauphin, it was created in the 15th century and named in honor of the prince when Charles VII granted Maroilles drivers a right of way through an act called the "Rights of the Prince". Another story has it that in the 17th century, the monks of a Maroilles monastery took their local cheese and softened it with herbs for a visit of a child prince. And finally, some say that the same cheese -- at least under the name Baguette Laonnaise -- didn't appear until between the two world wars.


Well, what do you know? This French cheese actually is French. I could have used it for the piece I wrote on bread, but it works just as well here: A baguette. Not French bread. Just bread.


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