Apr 6, 2014

Of Pickpockets and Alternate Universes: Termignon


When my cousin Abby is visiting, I tell her what a pleasure it is to toodle around Paris with her. Our days together seem to flow perfectly, the timing works out, and each detour seems to bring us a new delightful surprise. Until one morning, when it doesn't. After dropping the girls at school, we head out to the Hotel de Ville for a Doisneau photographic exhibit. We try to get there a bit before it opens at 10am to beat the rush, but instead the rush beats us. It turns out to be over a two hour wait, and we don't have that sort of time. Instead, we wander up to see what's at the Centre Pompidou. However, once we get there, we see another enormous line, so we opt to walk around the isles in the Seine instead.

As we are leaving the Pompidou, I tell Abby how we had looked at an apartment near the Pompidou but didn't want to live in that neighborhood because it was just too seedy and gritty. And not two minutes later, I am sandwiched by two guys pressing against me harassing me for a signature. I do what I think I'm supposed to do in this situation which is at first ignore, ignore, ignore and just keep walking. But it's tough to ignore, since they are litterally pressing their clipboards into my sides. One has his pen open and it's hitting my favorite jacket, and I keep brushing it away. And finally, when they just will not leave me alone, I turn and tell one of them that if he touches me again, I will scream for the police. They leave, and I think the victory is mine, then realize I got rid of them too easily. In that split second I know that they have pickpocketed my wallet -- which was zipped up in my front jacket pocket, ironically, because I thought it would be safer there than in my purse. (Gigi once caught somebody with her hand in my purse coming out of the metro.)

At the police station to report the theft, I tell the officer they were speaking a different language -- Arabic or something. My friendly gendarme suggests Romani, and asks me if they were Middle Eastern or Eastern European, and since I honestly don't know I keep flip-flopping. Finally he says to me, "Just stop guessing. I'm putting down 'Eastern European' because that's what they were: Romani." Apparently, only "gypsies" are issued permits for pickpocketing in the square of the Pompidou. (In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik takes a much longer, more thorough look at this issue.)

There have been some recent, generally futile attempts to round up the Romani. On one haul outside Notre Dame, we witness twelve Romani women being arrested and taken away in four police cars. First, the police frisk them, and look very carefully through all of their jackets and pockets. A visitor that is with me at the time wonders why, but to any local, the answer is obvious: They are looking for pickpocketed wallets, phones, and other valuables.

At the moment I am pickpocketed, though my wallet is normally near-empty, I have a fresh 80 and 30 new metro tickets. And, I lose my hard-earned carte de séjour. And I really loved my little wallet. I am pretty calm about it both because there's nothing I can do about it now (unless I somehow figure out how to turn back time and deliver a well-deserved kick to the groin) and also because of what I call my "Alternate Universe Theory."

There is, actually, a pseudo-scientific Alternate Universe Theory that every outcome that is possible does, in fact, happen in some parallel universe. So when something bad happens, I like to think of all the other universes in which I would happily trade for this one. For example, in this case, there is an alternate universe where they grab my wallet and whole purse and run. It's my favorite purse, and it's currently holding a camera plus the girls' birthday gift to me -- a pretty little Paris-themed notebook so I can jot down notes and ideas on something other than the backside of a receipt I will later lose. There's another universe where they get my wallet, and the guy does, in fact, ruin my coat with his stupid pen. There's another universe where instead of my wallet, I am physically attacked and hurt. And in any of those universes, I would think longingly, "If only I lived in the universe where all they got was my wallet..."

Having said that, and having tried to look at this in the best-possible perspective, I'm not looking forward to going back to the Préfecture de Police and getting the replacement for my carte de séjour. Sigh. If only I lived in the universe where they took my wallet, but I had forgotten to put my identity card in it.

THE CHEESE: Termignon

Termignon -- also called Bleu de Termignon, Bleu du Mont-Cenis, Persillé du Mont-Cenis, Mauriennais, or Bleu de Besans (whew, that's a lot of names!) -- is a raw cow's milk, artisanal cheese made in Termignon, near Mont-Cenis in Savoie, on the border between France and Italy. The milk comes from Abondance and Tarine breed cows that graze in summer mountain pastures of the Parc de la Vanoise at a high altitude (2000m). The manufacturing process uses both fresh milk curds, and curds from two days earlier, mixed in a wooden bucket, and pressed by hand into linen molds. The cheese is aged for two weeks in a room at mild temperatures then months in a darker, colder, more humid cheese cellar.

It has been manufactured here since the 18th century but has never become particularly famous. Well, not among the hoi polloi. Connoisseurs know about this cheese, as it is rarely sold outside the area and when it is, it is one of the most expensive cheeses in all of France; I buy it at the Laurent Dubois shop for 49.8€ per kg (that works out to a little over $31/lb). That might explain why the wedge is so thin. The flavor is a fine, medium-strength blue, salty with a hint of sweet and tangy. It's a little on the dry crumbly side, but melts in the mouth, and overall is really worth the extra cost. Our family just loves it.

What is most interesting about this blue is that if you buy it young, it doesn't look like a blue cheese at all. Rather, the interior is a creamy, golden yellow color. But you're rewarded for your patience if you let it sit and age. Gradually, you can see the blues come out and become more pronounced. It's the only blue I've seen (ever? or just yet?) that does this, and it's like a fabulous affinage science experiment. Here you can see the contrast between the large, young wheel, and the smaller, more exposed wedge that was actually cut from it:

In fact, no bacteria (the Penicillium usually added to blues) are introduced into the cheeses, so the blue veiny molds develop naturally over the course of four-five months in the cheese cellar, which must contain the natural bacteria. This is a great example of why cheeses are the way they are: Using the same milks and manufacturing process but in a different place would never result in the same cheese.


Either way you look at it, someone's reaching in your pocket for your money. But I'd much rather live in the universe where it's me reaching deep in my pocket and my money goes to the cheese shop so that I can pick at this delicious, unusual blue than the one where I have the blues because somebody else reaches deep in my pocket and picks my money from me.


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