Jun 2, 2014

Said He, Said She: Chèvre Piment Espelette

For the last year, I have wondered why my daughters started making mistakes in what I consider one of the most basic aspects of English: "his" vs. "hers". They are constantly saying things like, "This is Paul and her wife," or "When is Mommy going to finish his phone call?" While their French is bilingual, let's face it: We haven't been here that long, and it's not like they've actually forgotten English.

So why? Why are they asking about Daddy and "her" work? I finally figured it out. Because whereas gender in English belongs to the subject in question -- Paul and his wife -- in French, the gender belongs to the object in question -- Paul et sa femme. So, for example, an apple is feminine (la pomme) which means that whether the person who has the apple is Paul or Marie, either way it would be sa pomme (his or her apple).

Paul et sa pomme (Paul and his apple)
Marie et sa pomme (Marie and her apple)
Paul et son cartable (Paul and his backpack)
Marie et son cartable (Marie and her backpack)

When the object of the sentence actually has a gender, but one that doesn't match the gender it's assigned in French, it's even more confusing. A great example: a lady with her baby daughter. In French this would be

la dame et son bébé (The lady and her baby).

While neither the subject (the lady) nor the object (the actual baby) of that phrase is masculine, the possessive pronoun "son" is. This could easily happen with a female teacher (le prof), a mother (if referred to as un parent), a female doctor (le médecin), and many others.

Now, to my grammatical horror, my girls sometimes even mix up the actual words "he" and "she". Gender is, apparently, a very fluid concept -- even more fluid than when we lived in San Francisco and, especially, at the time of Bay to Breakers, to which you owe the photos of this barely-clad, fabulously-coiffed twosome.

THE CHEESE: Chèvre Piment Espelette
This cheese is also known in basically any variation of the words Chèvre, Piment, and Espelette -- Chèvre Piment Espelette, Chèvre au Piment Espelette and even Tomme de Chèvre au Piment d’Espelette -- this is not to be confused with the cheese of, frankly, the same name that is, however, a totally different cheese. I'm going to have fun figuring out how to list these two, aren't I?
Look, here is the Chèvre au Piment Espelette that it is not -- a small, creamy, goat from Poitou-Charentes.
And this is the cheese that it is: a tomme-style, semi-hard, large goat cheese from Ariège in the Pyrénées, aged around 4 months. It is, of course, make with goat's milk, as the name (or various names) suggests. But this cheese has a most unusual stripe of Espelette chili goo, for lack of a better or more technical word, in the center. I am thrilled beyond belief that I get a sample of this at my local cheese store, because I would have hated to buy it and have to eat a lot.

In a country where people barely use any spice (let's just say I've had some really mild Indian food...), this is shockingly hot. And what's worse, it's a pretty powerful, pungent cheese. I associate spiciness with Thai, Indian, Chinese, or Mexican cuisine, for example. I expect my mouth-burning spicy heat when eating curries and veggie-laden ethnic foods. So combining the spice experience with a full-on stinky cheese is just not something my brain can compute. It reminds me of the reaction my Japanese friends had to the idea of rice pudding, mixing what they consider a plain, savory food -- rice -- with sugar and milk. It was as if somebody were serving them orange juice with steak cubes in it. This cheese feels like that to me: a combination of two things that just don't go together. It's a cheese that doesn't know what it wants to be -- spicy? creamy? stinky? French? ethnic? Aargh!
The French tend to be very gender specific: your female dog is "la chienne", your female cat is "la chatte", and milk only comes from "la vache". So if it's milk that comes from a mammal, why is the animal called "la chèvre" but the cheese called "le chèvre"? Riddle me that!
Also, this cheese has a streak in it, which the often gender-bending Bay to Breakers mentioned above also does (many streakers, that is).

And finally, this cheese doesn't know whether to be stinky or spicy, and it's a really unusual mix of the two, which -- to me, at least -- echoes some of the gender confusion and non-traditional identity issues of this story.


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