May 1, 2014

May Day!: Vieux Lille


It's May 1st, May Day, and that can only mean two things: 1) lilies of the valley, and 2) nearly everything is closed. OK, I exaggerate. A couple stores are actually open and do not have a sign in the door saying "specially closed on May 1st", but seemingly 99% of Paris is off-school, off-work, and off-duty -- except the people selling lilies of the valley on the streets.

This May Day tradition is not just French, but very specifically from Ile-de-France, the Paris region. It all started, supposedly, when King Charles IX received a bouquet on this day in 1561. He started presenting little bouquets to ladies of his court every year on this date. In the early 20th century, men used them to show their love, but of course that has been taken over by red roses on Valentine's Day. And nowadays, it's mostly used among friends and families as a simple kind gesture.

We receive two bouquets of lilies of the valley -- called "muguet" in French (pronounced moo-gay) -- one from a neighbor in our building who picked them in the woods herself, and another from a visiting American friend who procured them the way most people do nowadays -- from one of the myriads of people selling them on the street.

The holiday has been a celebration aimed at workers rather than lovers since the introduction of the 8-hour work day in late April 1919 (with interruptions in World War II). The holiday has been officially known as "La Fête du Travail" or "Labor Day" -- a day when basically nobody labors -- since 1948. What holiday will they come up with to celebrate the official 35-hour work week here in France? Or the 4-day school week? Or the 6-weeks-on/ 2-weeks-off school schedule? Really, what we need here in France are more days to celebrate the work we don't do.

My favorite seller -- and alas, I was walking without any means of taking a photo! -- was one in the Marais, who actually spelled it "mugay" -- particularly appropriate for the most famously gay neighborhood in Paris.

Some say the dog rose flower is also a symbol of May Day, but if so, I'm not seeing it. That's like saying Biden is also the executive branch of the US government.

THE CHEESE: Vieux Lille

And you thought Maroilles was bad. At least, I did. Well, take a whiff of its cousin, Vieux Lille.

Let's put it this way, it's alternate name is "Puant de Lille" or "Puant Macéré", which means "Stinking Macerated". Or, let's put it this way: in 1960, Nikita Khrushchev, then head of the Soviet Union, discovered this cheese on a trip to Lille. He even had some delivered to the USSR for his enjoyment. Somehow, that fact alone should let you know it's powerful stuff.
As should the fact that Vieux Lille is made the same way as its stinky cousin Maroilles, then is salted twice, and matured for even longer -- 5-6 months. Ripe? Yes. But not so much ripe like a melon as a ripe like a runner's crotch.
And the taste? Well, they say taste is 90% smell. So that tells you something. I'm just very, very happy that I get to try this in a small, free sample.
Vieux Lille is a soft cheese made from raw cow's milk in the northern tip of France, in Nord Pas de Calais. Actually, it's made not in Lille but in Avesnois, where Maroilles is made. The reason it's named after Lille is that in the 19th century, people would come down from Lille to buy the cheese. Some genius had the idea to salt it further in order to prolong its shelf-life for the month or two it would take to make the journey back to Lille and re-sell it.
But why stop there? There's also a version called a Petit Gris (Little Gray) whereby you buy a Vieux Lille, then take it home and age it for several months on your own, till it's not only stronger-smelling but also runny (in a rancid way). Nobody sells the Petit Gris, for the obvious reason. When I ask the farmer who makes and sells the Vieux Lille and Maroilles what the Petit Gris tastes like, she replies wisely, "I don't know. And I don't ever want to."


Lille kind of looks and sounds like the word "lily". But more to the point, perhaps, both the cheese and the flowers have a surprisingly strong smell. In the case of the flowers, however, it's a lovely, floral fragrance that fills the room -- despite how tiny the lilies are. You can guess, therefore, which aroma I prefer.


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