May 3, 2014

Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free: Bleu Cendré


Well, the sun is shining, the air is warm, and that can only mean that it's time to sit outside at a café...if you want to be asphyxiated, that is. While I wholeheartedly applaud the fact that France finally, begrudgingly made smoking inside restaurants illegal as of 2008, the net result of that is that the smokers end up taking over the outside seating thereby defeating the point of eating al fresco.

And I speak from experience. I nearly tried to cancel our move to Paris over this issue. When Anthony and I were here on our fact-finding mission for schools and housing, we finished up our trip with a decadent meal at la Cigale Recamier, a restaurant famous for its soufflés -- salted caramel in particular -- in the posh 6th arrondissement. We ate outside in a typical French fashion: multi-courses, served slowly: appetizers, savory seafood soufflés, and dessert soufflés. Meals here routinely take 2-3 hours and simply cannot be rushed. We were seated at the very full restaurant next to and downwind from a six-top of French twenty-something hipsters who proceeded to chain smoke throughout the entire meal, whenever they were not actually putting a forkful in their smoke-holes.

Back at the hotel, I violently vomited over $100 worth of soufflé as a result of all that smoke. My biggest regret was that I threw up back at the hotel. I would have loved, loved, loved to have thrown up on the hipsters themselves. Anthony thinks I am overly self-righteous and embarrassingly loud about my contempt for people smoking next to me, since, technically, it is within their legal right to smoke. Well, it is within my legal right to vomit, too. He thinks I am possibly not in my right mind on this issue (among others...). Perhaps he's correct. I mean what sane person wants to vomit on a perfect stranger? But I can't help feeling what I feel, and what I feel is that while they may not deserve to be covered in my stinky puke, I definitely don't deserve to be covered in their toxic secondhand smoke.

What saves us all is that we don't actually eat at restaurants every meal when we're living here. And, it's noticeably better at cafés that are in heavily-touristed zones, since it seems to me the tourists (at least the North American ones) don't smoke as much as the French. So our neighborhood is also a little better than it could be elsewhere, but there are still smokers.

In the case of the photo below, I know you're more focused on the parakeet sitting on top of this guy's head. But that's another story. This story's about his friend, the smoker.

At this café, even the dogs are smoking.

According to the French Office for the Prevention of Smoking, in 2009 about a quarter of French 18 year-olds were daily smokers. And it's pretty clear that hasn't been any precipitous drop in the last few years. What is most amazing to me is that you will see groups of students standing outside Lycée Henri IV or Lycée Louis le Grand smoking.

These are arguably the top two high schools in France and are very, very, very competitive (both to get in and stay in), so these are France's best and brightest. The students don't hide their smoking; they puff away in large groups right outside the school, with their teachers walking through the group unfazed and, sometimes, smoking alongside.

I recently gently asked some women to move away when they were smoking in a school doorway as elementary-aged children were coming back from a fieldtrip, only to be told that they themselves were the preschool teachers. From a San Franciscan's perspective, this is just one small step above shooting heroin in front of the kids.

There have been huge increases in taxes on cigarettes as part of the national campaign to curb smoking. But the stereotype of the smoking Frenchman is a persistent one, even by the French themselves. It's quite clear that it still has a much "cooler" image here than it does back in California, and in fact smoking in France actually increased between 2005-2011, with Gaulloises and Gitanes as best-selling brands. More than 14 million out of a population of around 66 million smoke, and the numbers for girls in particular are on the rise. It's one of the few areas in which French women and girls have finally -- and sadly -- achieved parity with men and boys.

My friend Mark sends out a photo of himself with the following caption: "Me, in some French race, 1988, desperate to make the selection. I finished in the top ten and won an ashtray." But when it comes to the confused "modern" attitude on smoking in France, I think this photo, which I take in a hotel room in Strasbourg, says it all:

THE CHEESE: Bleu Cendré

Bleu Cendré, also sometimes referred to as Bleu de Chèvre Cendré, is a goat cheese with a blue streak in the middle, and an ashed exterior (the word "cendré" translates literally as "ashed"). It's a farmhouse cheese created and made by the Ferme de la Tremblaye in Rambouillet, not too far outside of Paris.

It's a beautiful cheese, with the streak inside and the ashed exterior that contrast the creamy goat cheese. Given the look and the name of the cheese, I expected something powerful and pungent. Instead, it's a cheese that's so mild, it's almost bland -- none of that goaty zing, none of the blue tang. It's disappointing, unless of course you like really mild cheeses.


Since both the name and the cheese are ashed, the connection is ashes to ashes, of course. Plus, all this smoking makes me feel blue. It is, frankly, a disappointing cheese that goes well with such a disappointing subject.


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