Jul 2, 2014

How Gauche: Fleur Marais Salants


Paris is famously divided in two by the Seine, the so-called Left (gauche) and Right (droit) Banks. But is the gauche really gauche? Well, in some places, of course. But mostly the left bank is the charming home of the Latin Quarter, Sorbonne, Jardin de Louxembourg, Eiffel Tower, Invalides/Napoleon's tomb, Musée d'Orsay, and many of the toniest arrondissements in the city (specifically the 6th and 7th). The right bank has the Louvre, Opéra, Grand Palais, Bastille, Marais, Pompidou, and Jardin de Tuileries and some of the trendiest neighborhoods. Many people support one side or the other quite strongly, but I feel I can be pretty neutral on the Right Bank/Left Bank divide, since we don't live on either: Ile Saint Louis and Ile de la Cité are in the middle of the Seine and, therefore, neither here nor there.


Much as I have gone through my life with a mental block confusing oven/stove and dishwasher/washing machine, I have a mental block about these banks. I imagine myself facing west, towards the Eiffel Tower, from the tip of Ile de la Cité, when I need to remember which is Left Bank, which is Right.

That's Left Bank.........................................................................................................and Right Bank.

And, while we're at it, right wing and left wing -- politics, that is -- also have their origins in France. After the French revolution at the end of the 18th century, the supporters of the revolution who were inspired by the Enlightenment were generally seated to the left of the President at the First French General Assembly. The more traditional royalist supporters were seated to the right of the President, the traditional place of honor with respect to seating by the King. This seating arrangement continued through the 19th century, as the country flip-flopped between republic and monarchy a few times. Always, the same left and right division remained. 
If you're wondering, our meaning of gauche as "awkward" or "tacky" is originally a reference to left-handedness. Yet the word "right" (in both French and English) means correctness or legal rights. The word "sinister" also comes from the Latin word for left. Poor lefties.

But here's the real problem, at least in my anglophone mind, with all this left-and-right: The way to say "go straight" is "tout droit", which literally means "all right". This is not alright with me: If you are told to go à droite, you go right, but if you are told to go tout droit, you go straight. I would think if you went all right -- right after right after right, you'd end up right back where you started, but, as Steve Martin once said, "Boy, those French, they have a different word for everything!"

I thought about this a lot when Pippa worked on left and right in her 2nd grade (CE1) class and, as you can see, had a way to go to get these concepts down. She had such difficulties -- in both French and English -- that a part of me wondered if it's some genetic legacy from her paternal grandmother, who was naturally left-handed but forced to become a righty and who, consequently, had right-left dyslexia all her life.

One day Pippa comes home from school and tells me her teacher made a boy change hands while working. Though I try not to be the crazy helicopter American parent, I do feel I have to say something, given the results this practice had on my mother-in-law. I am aware that Pippa is not the most accurate source of information, however, so I gently ask before accusing. And a good thing: her teacher is confused, thinks a moment, then says, "Yes! I did make a little boy change hands to use his scissors. Because he's a lefty, and he was using his left-handed scissors in his right hand. Which is actually a little dangerous." When she sees the look of relief on my face, she laughs and said, "Don't worry. Even in France, we don't do that anymore."

Of course the French wouldn't be that sinister. How gauche of me.

THE CHEESE: Fleur Marais Salants

Made from raw goat's milk in Deux-Sèvres, this cheese -- which can also be called Fleur du Marais Salant or Fleur des Marais Salants -- is named for the Fleur de Sel (the high-quality, exclusive salt that is naturally extracted from the foam of salt water) that comes from the marais (swamplands) in the Poitou-Charentes region of western France.

It's mildly goaty -- like a super-thick cream cheese. Ironically, for a cheese named after and originating in the salt marshes, it's only very, very lightly salty. The texture is cream cheesy, too: dry, thick, and creamy. If you know me and my habits, this naturally means I like it best with some honey drizzled on top. In fact, I try it with two very different honeys -- one light and one a dark chestnut -- and, like the big block of tofu that it resembles, this cheese simply takes on the flavor of whatever accompanies it.


The Marais is the name of a lovely neighborhood -- the 3rd and 4th arrondissements -- on the Right Bank. Mostly. My little island of Ile St. Louis and over half of Ile de la Cité (nearly everything but the castle/Conciergerie) is, technically, in the 4th and, therefore in the Marais. However, as I mentioned, that section of the Marais sits in neither the Right or Left Bank. There are only two other examples of Right/Left confusion in the Parisian arrondissements. Like the 4th and the Marais, the 1st arrondissement lies mostly on the Right Bank but also covers the castle on Ile de la Cité. While these are examples of places that are on neither bank (though aligned by zip code with the Right Bank), the small island of Ile aux Cygnes, which is uninhabited by humans, is actually split down the middle of the 15th and 16th arrondissements and, therefore, lies on neither the Right nor Left Bank yet belongs by zip code to both.


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