Jul 31, 2014

This Subsidized Life: Somport de Chèvre


One of the perks of living in France is that even in the upper middle class, we still benefit from all sorts of subsidies. My French friends, who range, I would guess, from upper middle class to rather wealthy indeed, also enjoy the benefits of the subsidies. We're not abusing the system; it's just the way it is.

Jul 30, 2014

Paris Plage: Tomme Brulée


It's the 13th year that Paris has closed off the quai in the heart of the Right Bank and turned it into a huge play ground called Paris Plage (Paris Beach). They import tons of sand -- sometimes we see it coming down the Seine on a barge -- and lay it out neatly in special areas. In other areas, they provide games, activities, snack booths, free water, bathrooms, works of accessible art, shade, cooling stations, and a variety of comfortable beach seating. The only problem is, you can't swim anywhere.

Since you can't swim in the Seine, Paris Plage kindly provides the occasional misting station. Yes, I realize I have photographed a sign that clearly shows I am not allowed to photograph here. But I'm not always the biggest rule follower, and -- beyond that -- I'm 99% sure that it's there so people don't photograph other people's children (and other people) frolicking in the mist in their bikinis, or half-naked. Whereas I feel fine about snapping this shot of only my own child, fully clothed, and not looking at all like she's in the sexy scene from Flashdance.

I'm not the only one taking photos, anyway. It's a pretty photogenic event.

They even have a special annex set up in the square of Hotel de Ville, where animators run the kids through rugby maneuvers. Between the backdrop, the imported palm trees, and the colorful T-shirts, I pretty much feel as if they've set this up just for the photo op with Notre Dame in the background.

The following day when we go back, they've set up a bunch of beach volleyball courts. Either way, it comes as something of a pleasant surprise to stumble across it in the heart of the city. Whether playing on it, in it, or with it, the sand is probably the biggest hit for the kids, of any age.

But our family is also partial to the patanque courts (bocce ball).

This year's nods to culture include an exhibit of bathing-themed works from the Louvre. It's an original exhibit, but not an exhibit of originals: the paintings are printed on weatherproof, waterproof tenting.

And, even more striking, an Eiffel Tower comprised of 324 bistro chairs, celebrating the 125th anniversary of both the Tower and the bistro chair.  


It lasts for about a month, from mid-June through mid-August each year. And everything, including the patanque courts and fresh drinking water, is provided for free. Well, everything except the snacks -- all very healthy, as you can see.

THE CHEESE: Tomme Brulée

The "brulée" in Tomme Brulée, as in popular dessert crème brulée, means "burned". And burned it is. To start with, it's just a regular raw sheep's milk fat disk, known as a tomme. Then, at the end of the approximately three-month aging period, it's burned in much the same way the crème brulée is: with a naked flame.

Like so many sheep cheeses, it comes from the Basque region, from the foot of the Mont Baigura. The milk comes from the local breeds: Basco Béarnaise, and red-headed and black-headed Manech.
The twenty of us tasting it mostly agree that it's very striking, very well-named, and very unusual in appearance, but also that the taste doesn't live up to the hype. It's a pretty regular, hard-but-moist, mellow sheep's cheese, and both the cheese itself and the crust are very mild. The hint of burnt taste doesn't go far enough, in my mind.


"Brulée" is "burned", and now so are a lot of pasty-white city folks sunbathing along the quai of the Seine, thanks to Paris Plage.

Jul 29, 2014

It's Freezing: Perail des Cabasses


These days, the weather is alternating between 90°F and muggy, and 65 °F and rainy. But either way, my cheese is freezing! This is not a euphemism. Rather, it's a tip: Many types of cheese freeze extremely well, in fact. And it's what I do with most of my cheese leftovers (yes, I do have some), resuscitating them for an encore performance to fill out future cheese platters.

Jul 28, 2014

The Wow Factor: Tricorne

There's an old expression in France -- "chapeau!" -- which means "wow!" The word "chapeau" itself, simple means hat, and why the added exclamation point turns is from "hat" to "wow!" is hard to understand. Until you see these hats.

Jul 27, 2014

Yes, We Cancan: Cancoillotte

Twenty years ago, my friend Andi and I were backpacking through Paris, and we bought tickets to the Folies Bergères -- the legendary showgirl, Cancan-inspired review. I'm glad we did, for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it's now closed, just a relic of the past. But certainly the best part of it was that we had shared a bottle of very cheap wine beforehand, and found it somewhat shocking and almost pee-in-your-pants funny that the women would come out for even their somber ballet numbers wearing elegant outfits with cut-outs for their boobs. But then, the purpose of the French Cancan has always been to entertain and titillate.

Jul 26, 2014

This Old House: Coeur Vendéen


When I say "This Old House", I mean old. Our friends' house where we are staying was built around the year 1510, which makes it a good 500 years old. As such, it's full of delightful rolling, wavy floors, crooked walls, and peeling paint. But it's not in disrepair so much as it is in a lovely state of ivy-covered weathering.


Jul 25, 2014

Southern France, in the Northwest: Le Ricochet


We are not in Bretagne, but in the Pays Loire -- just south of the Loire. South of the Loire is the key point here: this officially puts us in southern France, the Loire being the magical divider between gloomy, gray, rainy, Germanic north and sunny, blue, relaxed, Mediterranean south. Both are stereotypes, of course, and like many stereotypes, have a grain of truth mixed in with a whole lot of exaggeration.

Jul 24, 2014

The Royal Road: La P’tite Vendéenne


Sometimes I tell you about a spot in the hopes that it might inspire you to visit someday, on a trip to Paris or France. But this is a story of something I know you will never visit, a tiny little lane in a tiny little village half an hour from the nearest train station in the middle of nowhere. And yet its name suggests it would be something far grander: The Royal Road.

Jul 23, 2014

The Venise of Aprémont: Le P’tit Maillezais


We are just back from the self-proclaimed Venice of the North, Brugge Belgium, which is not as much of a Venice as Venice itself is. We are visiting friends in the Vendée to enjoy a little rural French life for just shy of a week. We start our trip with a pedal-boat ride in the self-proclaimed Venise d'Aprémont. It sure isn't the Venice of anywhere else.


Jul 22, 2014

Hula-la: Montrachet


At first, I thought I would title this "These Hips Do Lie", because when I moved to Paris and started dancing hula with my new halau (hula school/troupe), my hips were always off. What I had thought were universal dance steps can be done differently by different halau, and I had just joined a troupe where my hips often went left (especially for ami, amikuku, and ka'o steps) while the rest of the class was bumping right. Not to mention they have many "basic" steps we never use in San Francisco: including kalakaua, o, owai, ki'i, and kawelu (which is not the same as the San Francisco kawelu).

Jul 21, 2014

Big Brother, Little Sisters: Jabron

In English, we talk about the baby of the family, the eldest, and of course the ever-infamous middle child syndrome. But we've never thought to label and codify the birth order like the French. I have an older brother and sister; therefore, I am the benjamine of my family (and if I were a boy, I'd be the benjamin, even if my name was not Benjamin).

Jul 20, 2014

Good Enough for Cézanne: Rollot


When my sister-in-law, who is an avid and very talented painter, visits Paris, it's only natural that she would end up discovering the Charvin fine paint store. It's a store that makes me desperate to paint, and to take painting lessons (which I would need, in order to paint). It's practically a work of art itself, and the paints are just gorgeous. And, well, if they were good enough for Cézanne -- and they were -- then who am I to quibble?

Jul 19, 2014

Invasion Equation: Chevrotin des Aravis


As for the other surprise guests, 'tis the fifth season here in Paris: fall, winter, spring, summer, and tourist. So, our guests have started arriving. In droves. And often on a different day than expected.


The basic issue -- though not the only one -- is that many of you are telling us the day you are leaving the US (and especially the West Coast), as opposed to the day you are arriving here in France.

Jul 18, 2014

Salad Without the La: Le Guérandais


What is a salad with the la? It's just sa..d, very sad. Every salad needs some "la" -- maybe even some L.A. if you want this Californian's opinion. In France, they have all sorts of great vegetables and fruits and ingredients, and yet 90% of the time when you're in a restaurant, you'll get overly-large lettuce leaves often drowned in something that resembles airline vinaigrette.

If you're lucky, you may get some token other elements -- in this example, they've jazzed it up with a few carrot shreds, a couple overcooked bean greens, and some corn kernels (hey! that's almost creative by French standards!).

When we moved to Paris, Anthony wondered aloud if he would ever get a good salad again. And I answered -- truthfully and without exaggeration, I think -- "Sure you will. When we make them at home."

Here is a salad filled with things I buy in Paris but have -- literally -- never seen in a restaurant salad: cherry tomatoes, roasted beets, sprouts. In fatc, there are fabulous sprouts here in France: leek shoots, radish shoots, fennel shoots. The radish shoots are surprisingly spicy, much like a radish, I suppose. Yet I've never seen them used in a restaurant.

And not just sprouts, but greens. I think it's quite telling in some way that the word for what we call "greens" or even, somewhat generically "lettuce" -- they call "salades". So for the French, if greens are salades, then a salade can be nothing but greens. Yet, frustratingly, it is always basic lettuce. Whereas at the produce market and, therefore, at home, there are more interesting greens like arugula, baby spinach, or mâche, which is rich in vitamin A and iron -- much better for you than plain old lettuce.

I know I will get backlash over this, primarily from people who have stars in their eyes when it comes to life in France or who don't live in California -- especially not Los Angeles or San Francisco, where salads are pretty much an art form from the ingredients to the dressings. But I know I'm right. So, other than going to the high-end, very pricey French restaurants, about the only way to put the LA (or the SF, for that matter) back into your salad is to make it at home.

THE CHEESE: Le Guérandais

Le Guérandais is a raw goat's milk cheese that comes from Auvergne in central France. What makes it unique is that during the aging process, it is rubbed not just with a salt-water wash but with a wash of fleur de sel -- which literally means "flower of salt". Fleur de sel is the most desirable of salts, a fine grain salt derived when the naturally-occurring foam on the shores of a body of salt water evaporates.

The cheese can be eaten very fresh and soft, hard (called "sec" or "dry"), or between the two at "demi-sec" or "semi-dry". No matter what its stage, it has a very mild flavor, a thick texture, and only a hint of salt, which is somewhat surprising for a cheese whose claim to fame is the special salt rubbed on it.


Le Guérendais is a "le" so it's missing a "la" as well. But more to the point, this is just the sort of goat cheese you should slice, put on a piece of toast, melt, and stick on top of a salad. That, by the way, is one of the only regular French salad variations I concede has some spark: melted goat cheese on toast, on top of your salad is not just "LA", it's "ooh-la-la".

Jul 17, 2014

Where Are the Berets?: Le Petit Pain de Ventadour


You've heard it, seen it in films, imagined it: the snobby Parisian, in a beret and a scarf, smoking her cigarette at the café where she drinks a glass of wine. She leaves the café with her white poodle on a leash, lets it take a dump on the sidewalk, and walks away without stopping to pick it up. Stepping in her high heels over the mountains of dog turds left by previous passersby, she walks by the Eiffel Tower to buy an haute couture dress and finally arrives at the boulangerie, where she buys her loaf of bread.

Jul 16, 2014

A Nation's Great Shame: Comtesse de Vichy


My friend Alexia's great-grandfather, and therefore Gigi's friend's great-great-grandfather, the Count Henri de Menthon (1865-1952), lived in the family's medieval chateau in Menthon-Saint-Bernard, in Haut-Savoie, southeastern France. During World War II, he was forced to house Nazi troops, which he did so by blocking off one wing of the castle so that he wouldn't have to have anything to do with them. Meanwhile, Jewish children were being placed with families to hide from the Nazis, but they were having a hard time finding a single home for three siblings in one family who refused to be separated. When their Turkish-Jewish immigrant father was taken from them, he made his youngest daughter (Claire Farhi, aged 8) promise that she would keep her two remaining brothers (aged 6 and 10) with her; both parents, two older sisters, and one even younger brother were all deported and died at Auschwitz. Despite knowing he had Nazi troops under his roof, and that both he and his own son were in the Resistance, Count Henri de Menthon took in these three children in 1943. He passed the two boys as members of his own household and had the girl spend her days at the gardener's home on the grounds, then sleep with her brothers at night. The three children survived the war.

More recently, around 2010, there was a knock at the castle door. It was Dina Godschalk (formerly called Claire Farhi), the girl, come back from her now-home in Israel. She was happy to find his descendants still living there because, she said, she "couldn't rest easy until she knew that the Count de Menthon had been honored." And I can understand why. It's hard to imagine that kind of courage and so wonderful to know that there will always be some people who do the right thing even in the most adverse conditions. The Count's own family had never even heard the story until then.

The Count's son (my friend's grandfather) fought the Germans at the beginning and spent five years as a prisoner of war in Germany. His brother, François de Menthon (1900-1984), was the head of a major Resistance unit, became a government minister after the war, and played a part in the Nazi war criminal trials in Nuremberg in 1946. It was he who provided the first-ever definition of a "crime against humanity" saying that it is "un crime contre le statut d'être humain motivé par une idéologie" ("a crime against the status of human beings motivated by ideology").

Many of the Counts living descendants, including my friend and her daughter, flew to Israel to be there for the ceremony when he was honored among the Righteous Among Nations, posthumously, in September 2012. At that time, his name was placed on the wall at the memorial in Yad Vachem in the forest outside Jerusalem.

Just across the bridge from us, in the Marais -- historically Paris' most Jewish neighborhood -- lies another such wall: the Shoah memorial, dedicated not to the French Jews who died in World War II but rather to the non-French people who risked their lives during the Occupation to try to save them. It's a moving memorial, both depressing and hopeful at the same time.


The museum and memorial sit on a small square in front, on the former Grenier sur l'Eau Street (meaning Loft on the Water, presumably because this is drained marshland). I say former, because the name has been carefully Xed out -- but not removed or erased, presumably because we should never whitewash history and never forget.

The new name, "Allée des Justes" is "in honor of the Righteous who saved Jews during the Occupation." I walk by it often and explain it to our visitors. I sometimes direct tourists there, and once met up with a woman who wanted to see it because her own parents had escaped the Occupation. I am moved every time and, as a parent myself, try to grasp the enormity of their bravery and sacrifice, knowing that they put themselves and their families in such grave danger.

The Count de Menthon is not yet on the wall in the Marais, but only because nobody's been added since 2010. As of recent figures, the State of Israel has granted the title "Righteous Among Nations", it's highest civic honor, to over 24,000 people from 44 different country, of which just over 3,500 are French. Certainly the worst single episode against Jews in France during the Occupation is the Rafle du Vel d'Hiv. Not only that, it is largely considered the worst, and most shameful, single event in all of French history. And in a country with such a long history, one that executed 40,000 citizens -- over 16,000 of them by guillotine -- during what is called the Reign of Terror just after the Revolution, that's really saying something.

Today, July 16th, marks the 72nd anniversary of the Rafle du Vel d'Hiv. I find even the name of this event somewhat disturbing since the word "rafle" seems like it should mean "raffle" and that's usually a good, fun thing. In reality, it means more like "raid" or "round-up", and it refers to a massive one-day round up of Jews (especially foreign-born Jews living in France, though none were exempt) who were then delivered to the Velodrome d'Hiver (the Winter Velodrome), kept in inhumane conditions, and ultimately shipped off to concentration, many of them never to return.

The Velodrome d'Hiver was located on Nélaton street, in the 15th arrondissement, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. It burned down in 1959, but there are still many local reminders. In the nearby Bir-Hakeim metro station the sign is permanently posted that tells the story of the 13,152 Jews -- 4,115 of them children -- that were deported on this awful occasion. It tells of how the arrests were "to be carried out exclusively by the French police. The families were forcibly separated under abominable conditions. The parents were transported to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau along with the eldest children, between 31st July and 7th August, in four convoys of a thousand persons each. 3,000 very young children were left to themselves." They were later paired with other adults and sent in more trains to various camps. None of those children, and less than a dozen mothers, survived.

By the end of the summer of 1942, more than 40,000 Jews in France had passed through the Vel d'Hiv and other transit camps such as Drancy.

Inevitably, when I'm out walking with our visitors in the Marais, we walk by the Shoah Memorial to the Righteous. And then, I usually walk them through an adorable, tiny alley in which is located this peaceful courtyard.

I guess it wasn't always so peaceful, though, as the inscription reads "Here lived Mister Elias Zajdner, dead for France at the age of 41, a member of the Resistance deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis in May 1944 with his three sons, Albert aged 21, and Salomon and Bernard aged 15, dead in the concentration camps. We will never forget."

I don't even have to go that far, however. When I look out my front window, I can see Notre Dame on one side of the bridge, and the Memorial to the French Martyrs of the Deportation, on the other.

Sadly, this list of names -- of deported and murdered Jews -- carved onto this wall is even longer.

Because of this history, I've had more than one person ask about the Jewish community here. There is still Jewish history and a proud culture reflected in France, and Paris in particular.

Even more specifically, much of the most active Parisian Jewish culture and community is, still to this day, located in the Marais.

But is it diminishing? Historically France had one of the highest Jewish populations in Europe, and in the world. According to a recent article sent out on the AP wire, around half a million Jews live in France, the third-largest population in one country in the world, after the United States and Israel, although since World War II, it has since been against the law in France to keep official records documenting a person's religion. Over 5,000 are expected to emigrate this year to Israel, the most since the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967. The article confirms what I feel, which is that it's not based on fear of being Jewish here, or of any feelings of being subjected to anti-Semitism. I have to say for my own part that I don't feel any at all. It seems to be more a combination of economic opportunity in Israel vs. France and a response to the growing conservative Christian right wing here (think Marine Le Pen and the National Front) and the increasingly visible and extreme Muslim population.

Every year, to commemorate the Rafle du Vel d'Hiv, the French President makes a speech. In a famous speech by Jacques Chirac in 1995, he commented "La France, patrie des Lumières et des Droits de l'Homme, terre d'accueil et d'asile, la France, ce jour-là, accomplissait l'irréparable. Manquant à sa parole, elle livrait ses protégés à leurs bourreaux." ("France, nation of Englightenment and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France on that day committed something irreparable. Going back on her word, she delivered those she should protect to their executioners.")

More recently, and even more explicitly, current President Francois said during his speech in 2012 that it was a "crime commis en France par la France" ("crime committed in France by France"). Not one single German lifted a hand in the Rafle du Vel d'Hiv. All of the arrests were planned and conducted by the French themselves (often with the Jews being identified by their non-Jewish neighbors). Below is a sign in the metro today, meaning "Vigilant neighbors. We're watching. The police." But, since it lacks punctuation, it also reads "Vigilant neighbors. Let's watch the police." Which, sometimes, might not be a bad idea. It's not just a lesson in punctuation but also in history and civics.

It is tragically ironic that the Rafle de Vel d'Hiv happened immediately after Bastille Day (when it was originally planned, then delayed specifically to avoid coinciding), a day that gave birth not only to the revolution and its ideals but also the national motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood) -- three concepts that were entirely ignored.

THE CHEESE: Comtesse de Vichy

Comtesse de Vichy, which means "Countess of Vichy", obviously hails from Vichy in central France. It is made from raw cow's milk, heated but not pasteurized, and the result is something in the same famly as a Coulommiers. The crust is heavily coated with a thick, almost chalky white mold, so that while it is officially edible, even some French people prefer to cut it off.

When you unwrap the Comtesse de Vichy, it's wrapped in a thin sheet of spruce bark that needs to be cut through before eating. It is supposed to give a hint of flavor, though I must say that with such a thick crust, I can't taste it.

It's a firm cheese, as soft cheeses go, but still with that hint of internal goopiness. The flavor is mild, buttery, and just a touch salty, but not in any way strong or gamy.


I feel sorry for implicating the Countess, and the town of Vichy frankly, and the cheese, none of whom are responsible for the Rafle de Vel d'Hiv any more than are my current French friends and neighbors. But the reality is that the name of Vichy will forever be linked with France's great shame -- the establishment of the puppet Vichy government, acquiescence to the Germans in World War II, and complicity in the way the Vichy authorities betrayed the Jewish population.

But on the other side, I'm happy to be able to honor -- in my own purely cheesy way -- the Count Henri de Menthon and the de Menthon family with a cheese fit for a Countess.

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