Oct 2, 2014

Class Kidney Bean: Petit Nicolas


Gigi comes home from school one day and tells me, "Ugh. There's this boy in my class. And I just want to punch him." Somebody bullying her? Teasing her? Some mean, tough, scary kid?

No, she wants to punch the chouchou, or teacher's pet -- a little boy I'll call Agnan in honor of the character made famous in le Petit Nicolas stories. This is a French series of short stories so well-known and so beloved that I had heard of them and read them well before moving here.
It's retro but current: In fact, one of this summer's big family films here was Les Vacances de Petit Nicolas, filmed as if taking place during the 1950s, when the series was written by René Goscinny and illustrated by the famous New Yorker cartoonist, a Frenchman named Jean-Jacques Sempé but called, simply, Sempé. Below are some promotional shots of the film featured at Paris Plage.

So Gigi tells me about this nauseating boot-licker, ass-kisser, brown-noser, or, in French, "fayot", which literally means "kidney bean" but is used here as slang. "Ugh," Ginger groans. "We started reading out our book reports today. And after every single student reads, he raises his hand to comment. Then when the teacher calls on him, he tilts his head, puts his finger on his chin, and says the same thing every time: 'C'est très tentant...'" ("That's very tempting...") Within days, she reports that she and the other kids who sit in the desks surrounding Agnan have taken to raising their hands and using this exact same comment if called upon. Agnan then moans and lowers his hand so dramatically that even the teacher has tried to put a stop to it. I guess the desire to poke fun at the chouchou is très tentant, indeed.

He's the kid who tells the other kids to be quiet in the stairwell and frequently gets the class clown in trouble by playing the victim. Whenever anybody accuses him of being the teacher's pet, Gigi reports that he does this horrible fake acting thing and looks around saying, "Who, moi? Teacher's Pet?! No..." The kids, of course, mean this as a mortal insult, but Agnan takes it as high praise.

Gigi adds, "Every time Agnan talks, even when he's talking to other kids, he looks at the teacher to see if she's paying attention to him. Yuck. It just makes me want to throw up."

The funniest part is that it's not exactly like my bespectacled, bookworm of a daughter is a wild rebel. But nothing makes her more aggravated than watching Agnan polish the teacher's apples.
In case you've never read Le Petit Nicolas (and at any age, I highly recommend you do), it's easy to spot Agnan in this Sempé illustration below.

While all the other children are running around wreaking havoc and enjoying themselves on their field trip, Agnan stands demurely with his teacher and contemplates the art. What a kidney bean.


Petit Nicolas is a fresh, cow's milk cheese made at the Ferme de la Souleuvre, owned by Stéphane Nicolas -- hence the cheese's name -- in the town of Preny, in the Lorraine region near the German border. It is, literally, impossible to get in Paris, unless you have an acquaintance with a family home in Lorraine who can buy it at the farm or one of the regional stores and cart it back to Paris for you. I have to resort to this after I try mail ordering it directly from the farmer: The combination of low-tech communication and needing to ship a fresh cheese through the mail proves too much to overcome. So instead, it comes to me by train.

It's a pretty typical raw cows' milk, fresh cheese: light, mousse-y, moist, and fresh, but less tangy than a fresh goat cheese would be. We have ours with roasted balsamic figs (yum), in a lentil-carrot-beet mixture covered with fried egg (yum), or on toast with tomatoes (yum), honey (yum), or pâte de coings (yum). You get the idea. It's a very versatile, fluffy, mild cheese that works pretty much anywhere but is very hard to ship.


Agnan is the well-known fayot, ass-kisser, from the Petit Nicolas book series, and I desperately want to write about the boot-licker in Gigi's class. So imagine my delight to learn that there's a cheese called Petit Nicolas, and then to see the film this summer. Though I have to chase down this cheese for months before I manage to get it delivered to me from Lorraine to Paris, I'm still pleased: Sometimes, story and cheese really come together.


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