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.

In the past, it was done by lifting the skirts and showing off first the ankles, then the knees, then the thighs, and, finally, at some point in history, all bets were off, and so were nearly all the bottoms. The dance became largely an excuse to show the gentlemen (and not-so-gentle men) in the audience all that fabulous French lingerie in action. The word comes from the English sound made by the whooshing skirts and tapping feet during the dance.
Perhaps the single most famous spot for it throughout history has been the Moulin-Rouge, which has been showing off the Cancan since 1889, and which remains the spot in Paris to see a revue (modernized, but you know the Cancan -- and the boobs -- are still front and center).
The most famous dancers have always had a flair for fabulous stage names as well as for dancing suggestively: "La Goulue" ("The Gluttonous"), "Grille d'Egout" ("The Sewer Grate"), "Nini Patte en l'Air" ("Nini Paws in the Air"), "l'Ecrevisse ("the Crawfish"), and my personal favorite -- for the obvious reason -- "La Môme Fromage" ("The Cheese Kid"). Let me tell you, there is always a way to tie things in with cheese.
Cancan is not lost, but it may sometimes be misplaced. Looking through a recent brochure for a music and culture festival in the provinces: "Music is at the heart of the Abbey for two weeks...For the second year, the festival kicks off in the church of Bois-de-Céné with two concerts of lyrical religious songs." Next to this description is this picture:
When the Cancan first came out in 1898, a "Guide to the Pleasures of Paris" described it as "an army of young ladies who are there to dance this divine Parisian ruckus as its reputation demands...with an elasticity with which they throw their legs into the air which allows us to presume a similarly flexible morality...."
Our girls have excellent morals; they just like to wear frilly skirts and shake their booties. I ask them to come up with their own Cancan dancer names: Pippa chooses "Mademoiselle La Plume" (Miss Feather), and Gigi chooses "Mademoiselle Froufrou" (Miss Froufrou/ Fancy). Then, after telling them the names of the famous Cancan dancers from days gone by, I ask them again. So henceforth, Pippa's Cancan stage name is "La Poivrée" (The Peppery), and Gigi's is "La Chaude de Paris" (The Hot One from Paris).

And that is the end:

THE CHEESE: Cancoillotte

Cancoillotte is a creamy, cow's milk cheese from the Franche-Comté, in eastern France. It's an ancient cheese -- and sometimes really tastes like it, too. Originally, it was simply called "Fromage Fondu" ("melted cheese"), and it's sometimes also referred to as "Fromage de Ménage" ("house-cleaning cheese"), and "Fromage de Femme" ("Housewife's cheese"), all of which demonstrate something about the cheese's humble nature.

It probably evolved as a way to preserve Caillé (also like a yogurt without the cultured tang) even longer. Legend has it that this cheese first appeared more than two thousand years ago in the region then called Séquanie, now Haute-Saone, next to Franche-Comté. It definitely appeared in the court of the 16th century.

The milk is heated and pressed, as if in the beginning stages of making a firmer, cheesier cheese. At the point where it starts to get stinky and elastic and forms nut-sized granules, it's called "Metton" and is put back in the heat till it melts, turns yellowish, and becomes Cancoillotte. If your Cancoillotte has gone gray, it's gone bad (though many would argue it starts bad...). The taste is described as "very strong, acidic, buttery, with a fermented odor," and that's from a printed source that's trying to sell the stuff.

It's often eaten by heating it up with wine, butter, garlic and such and poured over potatoes, ham, or vegetables. I don't say melting, because it's not really solid to begin with, but rather very thick yogurt-textured. Even the plain version tastes like it's already got wine, butter, and garlic in it, frankly; it's very savory.

Consensus among our large cheese-tasting group (6 adults and 5 children) is that it would probably taste very good pouring it over potatoes, though I'm not sure if it would improve the potatoes or not. If I wanted yogurt-textured creamy stuff, I'd probably choose yogurt. It messes with my mind a little to dip into a spoonful of something that feels and looks like yogurt then have it taste like a something that would have macaroni in it. But it's salty and creamy, and I can see the appeal of it, even among French people outside of Franche-Comté.

We now have the smallest tub possible with the combined equivalent of about 1/2 teaspoon taken from it that I'll never be able to figure out how to use up.


Sure it would be better if it were called Cancancoillotte, but even one "Can" is better than none. Plus, Cancoillotte is a unique cheese that goes too far, in my mind. Lord knows that people thought the same of famed Cancan dancer La Môme Fromage in her day, too.


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