Aug 31, 2014

So Long, Dong Sarong: Tomme du Bonhomme

The sun is setting earlier, the school year is upon us, and it is time to mourn not just the end of French bathing suit season, but -- perhaps -- the end of a French bathing suit itself.
Yes, it's another posting that discusses the European men's Speedo, which I like to call the Teeny-Weeny Manokini. But are the days of the Teeny-Weeny Manokini, the Banana Hammock, the Grape Smuggler, the Nantucket Nad Bucket, the Ballbushka, the Nugget-Hug-It, the Manberry Pudding Pack, the Daytona Dong Sarong, and the Saint-Tropez Truffle Duffle really over? (In case you're wondering where I got these names: The Internet truly does have everything and more.)

Aug 30, 2014

Cliques and Labels: Tomme Cironnée


I should preface this by saying that Gigi's own middle school is full of the usual cast of characters -- early daters, fashion forward, elitist snobs, well-liked by all, super-smart, class clowns, nerdy outcasts, nerdy but well liked anyway, jocks, artists -- and that neither of my girls have been particularly bullied, harassed, or excluded, though of course there have been moments. And neither, as far as I know, has victimized anybody else. But then I hear about some of the suburban schools, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

One of the girls in Gigi's show comes from a suburban school where, she tells us, there are three groups of kids: "les populaires" (the popular kids), "les intellos" (the intellectual/smart kids) and "les bolos / bolosses". Now that last one is harder to define, though the English word that comes closest -- and is horrible -- is "loser". It's a word that popped up in the last decade or so in the Parisian suburbs and doesn't seem to be going away. Nobody knows exactly where it comes from, but two theories are that it's a mixing-up of letters of "lobos", as in "lobotomized" (inverting letters is a popular slang here) or that it's a contraction of "bourgeois" (just the same in English and French) and "lopette" (a pejorative word equivalent to "fag").

Gigi's friend tells her that the popular kids at her school have divided out the intellos and bolos in the grade into groups, with one of the populaires in charge of each group. Gigi's friend said her grades before winter break were actually so high that the populaire-in-charge moved her from intello status to bolos and told the rest of the kids not to speak to her for the rest of the school year. Now, doesn't that just curdle your blood?

It's not that these awful cliques and labels don't exist in the US, and probably world-wide. I'm sure they do. But I know this is not an isolated event. It seems that we're quite sheltered from it in Paris (and the same goes for San Francisco): There's a certain urban-cool that negates that and places high merit on both intelligence and artiness. But I will say this: no matter how horrified you are to hear it, the French schools don't do very much to combat it. The system here is not touchy-feely and nurturing, and doesn't seem to prize social-emotional intelligence or group work. So the mean girls and bullies, called "les pestes" (the "pests" or "the nuisances") march on.

THE CHEESE: Tomme Cironnée

You can tell where the Tomme Cironnée, also sometimes spelled Céronnée, comes from when you see it's more complete name, Tomme Cironnée d’Isère. Isère is home to world-class skiing in the mighty Alps, a mite too many cows' cheeses, and ...well...these mites called "cirons".

The mites are about half-to-one millimeter wide: tiny, but visible to the naked eye. Kind of like lice. Yum. Are we getting excited about this cheese yet?

Tomme Cironnée is a mountain cheese made from cows' milk that has been thermisé -- that is to say partially heated in order to get rid of some bacteria, but not to the point of full pasteurization. The resulting flavor is full -- with hints of sweet, smoke, wood, and a bitter tang. It's mild, but anything but boring. And for a hard cheese, it's remarkably creamy, absolutely smooth and silky in the mouth.

And all those holes? No, they're not because of the mites. They're caused by the air bubbles released and trapped during the cheese-making process. But the gray, leathery, nubby crust: now that's due to the mites. It's more often spelled Tomme Céronnée, and it's actually a variant of a Tomme de Savoie. It's "forgotten" in the cellars for 3 months so that the mites can go to town on the crust. It helps develop the specific aromas or nuts and spices. If you want to see a video on this process, just take a look at the video. If, on the other hand, you are squeamish and/or ever want to try this delicious cheese, you might want to give it a miss.


This is a story of upper crust pests. And the upper crust of the Tomme Cironnée is created by pests, real ones, though I guess the school-kind seem pretty real, too.

Aug 29, 2014

Confusing the Vampires: Tomme à l'Ail des Ours


One of the staples in a French market -- at any season -- is garlic. Without a doubt, the prettiest is pink garlic, a specialty of Lautrec.

Aug 28, 2014

Tops and Bottoms: Pyramide

We all know the stereotype: topl*ss women sunning on a beach. Yes, it's true that you'll see more of that here in France than you will in the largely Puritanical U.S. It's not only legal everywhere, but also culturally accepted. However, it's an evolving custom -- and you'll see fewer topl*ss women sunbathing now than in the past decades, and fewer up north than down south. So few, in fact, it's pretty much like being in California.

Aug 27, 2014

Size Creep: Mini Vacher Vendéen


In the US, I am not only nothing, I am less than nothing. I am less than double nothing in fact, and that's not for lack of confidence but for lack of size. As stores move the size names up, I find that sometimes even the newly invented American double zero (00) is too big for me, as is the XXS (because one X just isn't enough). Granted, I am 4'11" (in shoes), so I would expect to be the tiniest size, but I do still have mass and substance, so I would expect to be more than less than nothing.

Aug 26, 2014

It's a Culture Thing: Caillé de Brebis


Walking down the dairy aisle at a French grocery store is overwhelming, and not just because there are dozens of yogurts including fig, muesli, and sheep's milk (along with the goat's milk) -- flavors I'm not used to seeing elsewhere. No, mostly it's because the aisle also contains tubs of Faisselle, Fromage Blanc, and crème fraîche. And sometimes even Caillé. I just scratch my head, wondering what it all means...until now.

Aug 25, 2014

Broken, Martyred, but Liberated: Roquefort Pâte de Coings


"Paris! An outraged Paris! A broken Paris! A martyred Paris! But... a liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the help of all of France, of the fighting France, of the only France, the real France, the eternal France!"


Aug 24, 2014

Important & Interesting: Le Grand Gousier


Sure, we all think different things are interesting or important, but for an English-speaker in France, there's not just a cultural difference, but also a linguistic one, that can make boring things "intéressant" and mundane things "important".

In French, something might interesting or important in the English sense, but there are two other meanings that are even more commonly used. Something "intéressant" is, simply, inexpensive (or at least a very good deal).

Something "important" is significant, as in, the difference between the quality of two diamonds might be important. The correction in Gigi's glasses prescription is also important. There is construction going on at a local metro station that is "important" enough to interrupt the flow of traffic, but it's not particularly important.

THE CHEESE: Le Grand Gousier

Le Grand Gousier is a pasteurized goats' milk cheese from the Vendée, marbled with ash and coated with a thick, dry, orange crust. More interestingly (to me, at least), Grand Gousier is a character created by François Rabelais, who lived from 1483 or 1494 till 1553. The Grand Gousier is a glutton who likes to drink and eat salty foods. He's an important character, in that he's the husband of Gargamelle (which must be where les Schtroumpfs -- the Smurfs -- got the name), who is the daughter of the King of the Butterflies. Their child is Gargantua.

Now, back to the cheese. It's one of the many Vendéen cheeses I try in the grocery store, and it has that cheaper grocery store quality about it. However, I will easily allow that I prefer it to all the other cheeses I try from here. It's got a decent creamy-firm texture and a pleasant -- if not quite bland -- mellow flavor.


Le Grand Gousier that I taste is intéressant, in the French slang sense that it's on sale, and therefore cheap (but I still don't want to buy it). It's not particularly interesting in the English sense because it's not that exciting or memorable, taste-wise.

And is it important? Well, it's grand. I mean, it's got "grand" right there in the name. But it's not particularly grand, nor big ("grand"), nor important, nor important, in English or français.

Aug 23, 2014

Not-so-Royal Challenge: Corrèzon


With a name like "The Royal Palace" ("le Palais-Royal"), you would think it would be a) royal, b) a palace, and c) a major tourist site. In fact, the answer is d) none of the above. But the kids love it anyway.

Aug 22, 2014

Smile, Urine Paris: Senteur de la Pigière


Sometimes the great summer weather falls conveniently on the weekend. Whether it's the few Parisian who are left here holding down the fort or hordes of tourists, the gorgeous weather drives what seems like the bulk of Paris' inhabitants to the banks of the Seine.

Aug 21, 2014

The Habit: Tomme des Moines


Lest you forget that France is historically a Catholic country, just check out some of the people I see out on the streets.


Aug 20, 2014

Baby Blue: Bleu de Chèvre


Here in France, they don't seem to have gotten the memo that pink is a girls' color and blue is for boys. Thank heavens. Nothing makes you detest the color pink more than living in the US with young girls, for whom anything produced, created, and marketed, is obligatorily pink. For the record, so is vomit.

Aug 19, 2014

All the Whey: Brocciu Passu


It sounds like a truth potion from a science fiction comic, but lactosérum is, at its core, simply a way not to waste. It's the process that turns some of the byproducts of cheese-making -- the liquid whey that remains after cheese curds are removed -- into something not just usable but desirable: another cheese.

Aug 18, 2014

Window Licking: Le Pardoux


Meet Caramel, our friend's dog, and one who literally licks the windows. And tries to bite them, too.

But in French, "lécher les vitrines" or "licking the windows" is not just for the dogs. It's an expression that means "window shopping" (often seen as "faire du lèche-vitrine" -- "to do some window-licking") and is a preferred past-time of many a tourist and Parisian as well as misbehaving doggie.

Aug 17, 2014

Red Heels: Boulette d'Avesnes


Philippe de France, Duke of Orleans, and brother to King Louis XIV was, as usual, out all night partying with unseemly types -- his identity half-hidden -- at the Marché des Innocents one night in 1662. He made it back to Versailles at the light of day and was immediately told he had been called by his brother, the King. What does this have to do with a pair of red high heels? You'll see.

He needed to change because the Marché des Innocents was the precursor to what later became Les Halles, until recently the marketplace for all of Paris -- a seedy, gritty, dirty place where the blood from the butchers was known to run along the ground. The backrooms were occupied by shady card games, and liquor, and prostitutes. Philippe changed his clothes, but he didn't have time to change his shoes. He ran across the courtyards and through the palace in the shoes he had worn all night, the heels stained red by the blood.

The next day, when he showed up at some courtly function, nearly everybody was wearing shoes with the heels dyed red. He didn't even know why until he asked one of the noblemen and was told, "It's because of you, and the shoes you wore yesterday."

I guess everybody thought, "If it's good enough for the King's brother, it's good enough for me."

From then on, to have "les talons rouges" ("red heels") was a way of expressing that somebody was of high birth. I guess it's closest English equivalent would be "born with a silver spoon in his mouth" or, possibly, "blue-blood."

The expression isn't used much today, possibly because today's red heels don't send quite the same message.

THE CHEESE: Boulette d'Avesnes

Boulette d'Avesnes is, in theory, a little ball from Avesnes. I know; it doesn't look like much of a ball. But it is from Avesnes, which is in the North of France. As Maroilles was being made, the pieces that didn't come out of the mold properly were mashed up with herbs -- tarragon, parsley, and peppercorn -- and then hand-formed into these cheeses.

I've already talked about the white version of this, and this is basically the same cheese but coated with paprika.


It has a pasty consistency, closer to a muffin than a cheese. Can I be judgmental and say it's weird? It's weird. And the flavor of the white interior is not, frankly, helped by the pepper. It doesn't add spice so much as that sort of old-pantry-spice-paprika flavor. And too much of it. Can I be judgmental and say it's not very good? Well, at least I don't like it. It must be liked by somebody, because it's a fairly commonly sold cheese. I'm told it goes well with beer, but since I don't like beer, I'm not going to find out. It is a very pretty and unusual looking cheese; I'll grant you that.


This cheese is not just red, it's really red. Blood red, even. And while it's named a "boulette" ("a little ball") and in theory is shaped into a ball, every time I see it, it's pointy and pretty much looks like the shape of a high heel.

Aug 16, 2014

Show Me the Monet: Nénuphar


Like Chartres, another must-see-at-some-point for Parisians is Giverny. I wouldn't actually call this a must-see for tourists, however, especially as it's rather inconvenient. Unless you happen to be my false twin Sue, who is a Monet fanatic, and then you must see it. Because of her enthusiasm, we make the long, rather inconvenient trek to visit Monet's garden and house in Giverny. It makes quite an impression (ba-dum-bum).


Aug 15, 2014

Creative Genius: Figuette


Finally! Somebody has taken that classic French treat, the éclair, and done something with it. Because I have to say, I'm pretty sick of chocolate, cream, and coffee. L'Éclair de Génie in the Marais is the place to go if you want some innovation infused into your traditional pastry (and you're willing to pay dearly for it). You think you know éclairs? You don't know nothin'.

Aug 14, 2014

Childless in Paris: Le Marechal


I would just like to take a moment to appreciate the French camp system which has allowed me to be not only friendless in Paris, but also childless for a week, too. Our girls are sleeping at a medieval castle in Burgundy for the week, riding ponies bareback, doing fencing, arts & crafts, Ping-Pong, Casino nights, and whatever other summer-campy things they're doing. I don't know because I'm not there (yee-ha!).


Aug 13, 2014

Venice Everywhere: Le P’ti Maraîchin


Here a Venice, there a Venice, everywhere a Venice, Venice. It turns out that Brugge, the Venice of the North, and Venice, the Venice of the world, are not the only Venices out there, and that Aprémont is not the only Venice of France, even. La Petite Venise (Little Venice) in Colmar is, without a doubt, the Venice of Alsace. Or at least, without a doubt, the Venice of Colmar.


Aug 12, 2014

One for the Kids: Brebille


There comes a point in the travels of every culture-loving, tiny-village-seeking, castle-visiting, history-chasing parent that you must give up the desire to educate and enrich yourself and your children and just say, "Screw it. Let's just have some fun!"

Aug 11, 2014

The Beaten Path: Camenchèvre


It's time to get off the beaten path, off the Route des Vins, the tourist trail. We want to ride some horses and pet some animals. But instead of big glitzy horse ranch, we find a small, organic farm at the top of a local mountain: La Ferme des Embetsches, in the Parc Naturel des Ballons des Vosges (Why is it called the "Natural Park of Balloons of the Vosges"? No idea).

The ride takes us over beautiful Alsatian hilltops and through a tiny village.

Sometimes we have to beat our way off the beaten path, through the trees.
Gigi gets a battle scar from a tree, although we start telling people she was attacked by a baby tiger.
The kids love feeding the other animals as much as riding the horses. 

THE CHEESE: Camenchèvre

It's not all the time that I can introduce the actual goats that produce the milk for the cheese I'm going to tell you about. But Camenchèvre is produced at La Ferme des Embetsches. The girls feed and pet them for future milk production, so if you eat one of these someday, you can thank us.


Camenchèvre is an organic, raw goats' milk, farmhouse cheese, covered with lovely white and green-gray, moss-colored molds. It's an unusual cheese, one that you won't find in Paris or just about anywhere outside the local Parc Naturel des Ballons des Vosges area. You really have to get off the beaten path to get a hold of some.

It's a mild, creamy, cheese, lovely with honey or fruit. It is significantly less stinky than it appears to be, and the moldy crust is delicate and unassuming.



The goats we feed at the farm are the very same ones that are milked to make this cheese. I buy it in Alsace and bring it back to Paris for a cheese tasting party, by which point it looks like I've actually sat on it while riding the horse. It may look a little worse for wear, but it tastes great, nonetheless!

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