Jul 12, 2014

Bye-bye Border: Tomme de Poitou


In school, instead of learning about the 50 states, the girls are learning about the regions of France. Of course some of them are famous -- Provence, Normandie, Bretagne. But I'm learning a lot more about the country through my kids than I ever expected. For example, each region (22 of them), is made up of many departments (101 in total nationwide), which is in turn divided into communes (36,681 as of 2013), in which are cities, villages, towns, and hamlets (the word "commune" sounds very 1970s Soviet, but think of it more in terms of the word "community". There, now you feel better).

In our family, the hamlet of Saint-Félix-de-Reillac-et-Mortemart is legend, because it -- literally -- takes longer to read out the name than to drive through the town (in the rain, hence the drops on the photo). Of course none of us can actually remember the name when we tell the story, so we just call it "that tiny town in the Dordogne with the long name".

On the other end of the spectrum, one of my favorite factoids that I learn through the girls is that the commune with the shortest name is called "Y". I assume this is pronounced "Ee" and not "Ee-grek", which is how the French say the name of the letter "Y". Confused yet? I have tried to locate this on a map and failed, because Google just doesn't know what to make of it.

The smallest commune, physically, is Castelmoron-d'Albret in the department of Gironde. It is 3.54 hectacres. That's 35,400 square meters, or .0136680164 square miles, or 42,338 sq. yards.  The commune of Rochefourchat has a population of one. Paris is not only the most populous commune, it's also its own department, inside the region of Ile-de-France.

The girls learn in school that the smallest commune has a population of two., with the husband and wife who live there electing a mayor. Spoiler alert: It's the husband. I was hoping feminism would hit soon, and the wife would get her turn. I always imagined those marital spats would be loads of fun, "Because I'm the mayor and I say so!" or "I swear if you criticize me one more time, I will not vote for you next election!" But now I'm guessing that one of them passed -- either the Mayor or the Mayor's wife (who would, therefore, now be the Mayor herself).

The farthest region is called "Outre Mer" which means "Outer Seas" and is not just one place. Rather, it includes French regions that are also departments: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion, and the latest addition, in 2011, Mayotte. Yes, I admit that I have to Google Mayotte, and I'll save you the trouble: it's an island in the Comores archipelago (which I know doesn't help you), located between continental Africa's Mozambique and the island nation of Madagascar at the edge of the Mozambique Channel and the Indian Ocean. Two Outre Mer lands are not divided into communes: the French Antarctic territory and also Wallis-et-Futuna, between New Caledonia and Tahiti in the Pacific.

One of Francois Hollande's latest initiatives is to reduce the number of regions in France, combining regions and therefore reducing the total from 22 to 14 by 2017. The reason, of course, is fiscal. It's always fiscal. It's supposed to happen, though there is resistance to the idea. If he succeeds, I guess you'll have fewer regions to check off your list. The most contentious of these seems to be the combining of Poitou-Charentes, Limousin and Centre or perhaps the fusing of Picardie-Champagne-Ardenne. Therefore your champagne would no long come from Champagne, but rather from PCA, the combined region. Charente officials and many residents are pushing (demonstrating, even) to join Aquitaine, instead of Limousin and Centre. Cheese-wise, this seems to make the most sense, as Aquitaine and Poutou-Charentes are home to many -- most -- of the nation's best goat cheeses. And I'm sure their protest is all about the cheese. Isn't everything?

THE CHEESE: Tomme de Poitou

There is some confusion about whether it's a Tomme de Poitou, or a Tomme du Poitou, even from the people in Poitou who make the cheese, and I've seen it labeled both ways. It's a raw goat's milk cheese from Deux-Sèvres, which is, of course, in Poitou, which, in turn, is part of the combined region of Poitou-Charentes. This region is arguably (and in my opinion) home to the best goat cheeses in all of France, and quite a lot of them. This one represents the regional specialty very well, not just in name but in quality.

When served at it's best, the texture is thick and creamy on the inside, and oozy and soft on the outside edge, all held in by a thick, chunky crust. However, in the sample below, you can tell it's far more aged than that -- compressed, dehydrated, and much more yellowed with age. I'm sure it's still delicious, but even the salesman tells me I'd be better off waiting for the young sample. And I'm glad I do, because the texture is heavenly.

The flavor is equally excellent -- full of both sweet and salt, flavors and herbs, cream and butter.

Will this Tomme de Poitou, which doesn't come from Poitou but rather from Poitou-Charentes (the areas having been combined into one region in years past) be from Poitou-Charentes-Centre-Limousin? Or might it come instead from Poitou-Charentes-Aquitaine? I certainly hope they don't change the name of the cheese to either, because that would be too much of a mouthful, figuratively speaking. Literally speaking, it's delicious, and not too much of a mouthful, no matter what it's called.


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