Nov 30, 2014

Before & After (Part I, Before): Tomme de Bourgogne


Every appointment I go to leading up to my surgery since the initial breast cancer diagnosis, the doctors tell me "Good news!" and my treatment options just keep getting better and better. Frankly, it makes me want more appointments because I'm thinking the next time I go in they'll have to tell me I never had breast cancer at all. But all this "Good news!" poses one problem: They won't let me do the double mastectomy.

[Author's note: Sometimes it's hard to find just the right photo to illustrate a posting. For example, what is the correct photo to go with a story about my breasts? Here's a last look at the real pair, from a trip to Senegal earlier this year.]

The doctor explains that there simply isn't enough reason to do the left ("good") breast, although there are atypical calcifications that are so worrisome, they've been biopsied three times over the past half dozen years, and my oncologist wants to do a lumpectomy on it. I have to confirm I've understood correctly, "You're telling me that I'm a 46 year-old with breast cancer, in a family where virtually every woman has had breast cancer, and I've got something so worrisome in my 'good' breast that you have to remove it surgically, yet I don't have enough reason to do a double mastectomy?!" Evidently, not in France I don't.

In fact, even to be allowed to do the mastectomy on my cancerous breast, instead of only the lumpectomy that is required, I have to visit the psychologist (which, I should point out, I would not have to do if I were simply having cosmetic breast surgery). Anthony at first thinks this is very sweet of them, till I point out that it has nothing to do with helping me through what could be a difficult time emotionally; it's to make sure I'm of sound mind to make the decision to "self-mutilate" and won't regret it later.

Among other things, the psychologist asks, "What does your husband think of the idea of a fake breast?" Most of my American friends are floored that she would even ask this. I'm sorry, the last time I checked, it was my breast and my body. Sigh. But I answer her anyway, "Well, my husband is American. And his mother died of breast/ovarian cancer. So I'm pretty sure he thinks that as long as I survive, he doesn't really care if my breast is real or fake." Curious now, I double check with him, and he has the same reaction I do: incredulity mixed with a big dose of "Duh!" and a reassuring "Hell, yeah!"

On the "good news" side, however, (and here my squeamish cousin should avert his eyes), I get to keep my own nipple, which is the kind of thing you don't appreciate until they tell you, at first, that they're going to have to remove it. Everybody, take a moment to appreciate all the weird body parts you have that normally go unheralded. Thank you toe-nails! Thank you small flap over the entrance to my ear! Thank you wrinkly elbow skin! Keep up the good work!

At my meeting with the plastic surgeon, he sits down while I'm standing, so that his eyes are perfectly at boob level. He squishes, squeezes, massages, and plays with my breasts longer, better, and more than any non-husband man has since the hammam scrubber in Antalya, Turkey about 6 months ago.


At one point, the surgeon says, "They hang, you know." For a moment, I think maybe he means some new kind of prosthetic insert that will hang more naturally than the fake boobs of old. Seeing my momentary confusion, he tells me, complete with pantomime, "Your breasts, they hang. So with one real and one fake, they won't look exactly the same. One up, one down." Oh yes, I know that. I'm 46, with two children who nursed a combined total of almost 3 years. I'm well aware they hang. But thanks for pointing that out. But I guess they won't hang for much longer, especially if I can ever get that second boob lopped off!

When he finds out that I write about cheese, he tells me not to worry, "I will give you a beautiful tomme."

I respond, "So, I'll have one tomme, and one tommette? Can we try to make the new one a tommette instead? Two matching tommettes?" He understands me perfectly. It's nice when your plastic surgeon has both a sense of a humor and a good cultural understanding of cheese wheel sizes.

But not everybody understands. I feel it's part of my duty to show people that breast cancer does not necessarily have to be a horrific ordeal. I go so far as to have my favorite produce seller -- who's just of the age to start needing to check carefully -- to feel the lump so she knows, roughly, what to look for. It's easy to feel (heck, you can see it poking out with the naked eye), and not too weird in public because it's near my armpit. Don't worry, the produce is all packed away, so she's done handling fruit for the day. Except for my melons (bah-dum-bum).

But no matter how easy I feel I've got it, and how cheerfully I take it, there are moments that would try anybody. What does every woman need the night before her mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery? You get ten points if you guessed "To fight a lice infestation!" Clearly, Pippa took home a little more from her horse camp than just new riding skills (sure, now I know I should buy them their own helmets).

Nobody has seen any evidence that I have lice, too, but then again while Anthony may be detail-oriented and competent in general, he is completely useless when it comes to nitpicking. My head is itchy just dealing with Pippa's lice (ex post facto, my head is itchy just writing about Pippa's lice), and so I shampoo myself just to be safe.

In case you don't remember my opinion of lice, and my expression in the be-turbaned photo is not enough to clue you in, here's what I thought the last time I had to deal with it, on a trip to Provence. My position on the disgustingness of the little critters has not changed.

And then, finally, it's surgery day. It has all the hallmarks of a typical hospital experience. The folding beds, the boring décor, the ugly garb.


When they strap the blood pressure cuff on me, I can see the numbers on the screen. After having been cool as a cucumber and really quite cheery the past six weeks, I can tell you I must be feeling nervous: My pressure is 145 over 77, which is high for me. I start singing a Hawaiian chant that I like: it's melodic, calming, and all about gratitude, which I am feeling -- and trying to feel -- as much as possible. Thank goodness I found it early! Thank goodness for modern medicine and technology! Thank goodness there are people who like science more than I and are less squeamish than I and who want to dedicate their professional lives to being nurses and doctors and researchers!

I chant, and my blood pressure lowers to 138 over 69. I'm pretty pleased with myself, and the nurse comes over and encourages me: "Keep it up! That's fantastic!" So I do. I chant over and over, and it's like a video game where I'm rewarded by watching my numbers go down: At the precise moment they are giving me the vertebral block (a concept that makes me shudder), I am still singing, and my blood pressure is down to 115 over 55. The nurse is actually calling people over to witness it. I borrow a pen and write on my hospital gown so I can remember the numbers. I can't recall the last time I've had so much fun in a pre-op room.

Then the surgery itself starts, and the last thing I remember is that my vein keeps collapsing, so they decide to put me under with the gas mask they use for children. We laugh about this at the time, because, really, when you are 150cm (4'11"), you get used to having to go the child-sized route, but it's not something you expect to do when being treated for breast cancer. Oh, the indignity of it all. It has a revolting sweet/chemical taste, and I feel like I am being asphyxiated as they hold the mask over my face and force me to breathe, but deep-down, I'm optimistic. And then, blackness.... [to be continued]

THE CHEESE: Tomme de Bourgogne

From, obviously, Bourgogne -- Burgundy, that is -- this is a farmhouse cheese made from raw goats' milk. It's interesting that it's sliced more like a log would be -- in rounds -- instead of in the more conventional wedges that most tommes or discs are cut, sold, and served. It takes a good cutting tool, some expertise, and the steady hand of a surgeon to cut a goat cheese disc the size of a dessert plate and this thin and smooth.

As you can see from the photo of the tommes and the way they're sliced, it's a very firm, very hard goat cheese, despite the fact that it's considered a semi-soft cheese. You'll believe it when you taste it though: thick but creamy, and though a little crumbly on the knife, very silky in the mouth.

Tomme de Bourgogne has a mild goat flavor and mild saltiness to it, with a thick, bumpy, but completely edible (and even lovely) crust.


I've already written stories about Sein de Ma Nounou and Escarcelle, and used Figuette for a non-breast-related story. So at first I think to myself, "How many more breast-themed cheeses can I find?" Well, here's a nice, round cheese and one that comes from a tomme which is, by all accounts and by the standards of my cosmetic surgeon (and thank goodness), bigger than my new-and-improved, fancy-schmancy-cancer-free fake breast.

Nov 28, 2014

Refridge You Later: Petit Moyonnais


Like a puzzle, or a game of Tetris, I try to find a way to put all of my groceries in the fridge after each shopping trip. This is difficult, because I shop like an American (infrequently and in great bulk), but my refrigerator is very French (i.e. petit).

Nov 26, 2014

Skin of My Teeth: La Dent du Chat


We're not in England, but we're just across the Channel. Like the land mass itself, French dental hygiene is a lot closer to Britain than to America. While the stereotype of rotted out, brown, crooked teeth is largely (but, frankly, not completely) outdated, there's still a noticeable difference between dental care and the resulting smiles. One of my American friends recently visited a French dentist and asked whether he should be flossing more: The dentist rolled his eyes and snorted, dismissively, "Floss! Pfft."

Perhaps that is because French floss costs about the same as a small kitchen appliance, and shreds irritatingly, unless you buy the American-style imported Glide ribbon, for the cost of a small tropical holiday. We bring back scads of floss whenever we visit North America.

This total lack of interest in dental hygiene (combined with a preternatural interest in chocolate) especially shows among the children. In the Bay Area, we start sending our kids to the pediatric dentist around 3 years old, and then go every six months. In contrast, most French families I know start sending their children to visit the dentist after the first baby teeth drop, and the adult teeth appear, at around age 6 or 7. Appropriately enough for a cheese-themed blog, baby teeth are called, in French, "dents de lait", literally "milk teeth".

I can't bring myself to take picture of kids' horrible teeth, because it seems too mean. Here's a French friend with a fabulous smile, that she flashes often, but I consider it largely luck. When the girls do sleepovers, they notice their French friends generally only brush once, at night, quickly with a manual brush, whereas they brush morning and night, usually with an electronic brush.

I try to Google, in French, the recommended ages for starting to visit a dentist and am surprised to see recommendations of 2 years old, 3 years old, 4 years old. Then I realize that all of the options that come up in French on the first page of Google are from French-speaking Canada. The French people aren't even asking this question online enough to make their sites pop up first. Those North Americans and their pristine white teeth, perfectly aligned spacing, carefully calibrated bites, and fluoride-protected enamel. What will they think of next?

When the French children here do go to a dentist (and it's very hard to find pediatric specialists), there is less in the way of fluoride treatments; this, despite the fact that the water is not fluoridated at all. Appointments tend to be quick, because the dentist mostly just checks for cavities. If you want a thorough cleaning, or fluoride treatment, you generally need to make a special request, which will be met with, "Why? Is there something wrong?" Preventative dentistry is, literally, a foreign concept.

This is partly because the national health system, and the insurances that people have through employment to cover whatever taxes don't cover, almost never cover dental expenses. Our private insurance does, and frankly we're just too American not to go every six months for as thorough a cleaning and check as possible. So, we've found an American dentist here in Paris that we visit -- American born and raised, trained and certified, who then came to France and got certified to practice here as well. I can't honestly say I think the care we get here is as extensive and detailed as what we get in the US, but it's light years above what most of the French are getting.

And while it's probably hard to find many middle schoolers in North America who can eat corn straight off the cob, here in France there are relatively few kids with braces. Perhaps that's why people can identify my continent of origin by my teeth alone. Now pardon me, I have to go, because I've got the crazy urge to brush with my electric brush, floss, and put on my retainer.

THE CHEESE: La Dent du Chat

La Dent du Chat, which literally means "The Cat's Tooth", comes from the department of Haute-Savoie in the Rhône-Alpes region and is, in fact, closely related in nearly every respect to a Tomme de Savoie. This cheese, however, is made not from raw or pasteurized milk, but rather from milk that is "thermisé" which is a word that I like to translate as "thermised", even though I have no proof that this is a real word in the English language. It means the milk is heated significantly, but not to the point of pasteurization, and therefore some of the bacteria is killed, but not all of it.

The cheese, made by the Coopérative Laitière de Yenne Porte de Savoie (Dairy Cooperative of Yenne Porte de Savoie), is not named after a cat's tooth, but rather after the mountain called "La Dent du Chat" at the base of which the dairy coop is located. The Cat's Tooth is a summit of the Cat's Mountain, on the western edge of Lake Bourget in Savoie.

The cheese is aged 10-12 months from roughly summer-season milk (April through October), making the resulting cheese fragrant with herbs and flowers, and pleasantly sweet-salty in that way of mountain cows' cheeses -- not strong, but not boring, either. For a hard cheese, it's actually rather creamy and soft, once in the mouth.


This cheese is a brown and yellow Cat's Tooth, to be enjoyed by the sometimes brown and yellow French teeth, though equally enjoyable to North American movie star white teeth, which are, in my biased opinion, the cat's meow.

Nov 24, 2014

Me, Myself, and I: Mizotte


And people think English speakers are egotistical: "I", "I", "I". A common quirk of colloquial French is that people often start their sentences with "Moi, je..." "Me, I...." Me, I'm here to tell you that sometimes the French also use this construct for others, for example, "Toi, tu..." (you) and less commonly "Lui, il..." (he/she).

Nov 22, 2014

Of Checks & Chips: Etorki


On the one hand, France seems ahead of the game: they've had chips in their credit cards for years. Except, of course, that they're not credit cards. They're debit cards. After they insert the card, you have to enter the four-digit code. That's easy enough to do, because the credit, er I mean, debit card transaction takes place at your table in a portable machine, which is much safer because your card never leaves your sight. When will the US adopt this system?

Nov 20, 2014

Long Live the King!: Le Chouan


In CM2 -- 5th grade, that is -- Gigi's teacher was talking with the class about government. One of Gigi's classmates contributed, in all sincerity, "I want the King to come back..." Pregnant pause in the classroom..."That way, my family would be nobility again."

Nov 18, 2014

To End All Cheese Platters: Chèvre


It's the platter to end all cheese platters -- except of course that it's not. Today I am celebrating (drumroll, please) my 365th cheese! I've totaled 366 postings -- 365 cheese and 1 butter, and I've certainly learned a lot more about France and French cheeses than I expected. Though I'll be continuing my Year in Fromage even after my year is up, I feel this is the day to answer an oft-asked question: What cheeses would I choose for my fantasy cheese platter?

Nov 17, 2014

Not So Sincerely Signing Off: Sancerrois


Dear Readers,

Given that this is my last language lundi (Monday) of the official Year in Fromage, I always planned to sign off with a story on signing off. Yet it turns out I'm not signing off on this project quite yet. It also turns out to be a slightly ominous-sounding coincidence since, as you read this, I will be unconscious and under the knife. Don't worry, I'm not signing off; just think of it as ironic, dark humor.

Please want, dear Reader, to accept this expression of my most sincere sentiments.

In English, you certainly realize how ridiculous that last sentence sounds, but that is the approximate sign-off of any formal French letter. Here are just a few closing remarks I've received recently, mostly in letters from the girls' schools, with their far-too-literal translations:
  • Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, Madame, l'expression de notre considération distinguée = Want to accept, Monsieur, Madame, the expression of our distinguished consideration
  • Dans l'attente de votre réponse soyez sure, Madame, de mon entière considération = In awaiting your response, be sure, Madame, of my entire consideration
Other variations:
  • Veuillez agréer, Monsieur/ Madame, l’assurance de mes sentiments les plus distingués = Want to accept, Monsieur/ Madame, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments
  • Veuillez croire, Monsieur/ Madame, en nos salutations les meilleures = Want to believe, Monsieur/ Madame, in our best wishes
  • Veuillez accepter, Monsieur/ Madame, l'expression de mes sentiments les plus dévoués = Want to accept, Monsieur/ Madame, the expression of my most devoted sentiments 
Now if you don't want to command them "You must want to accept this! Believe this!" You can beg them instead.

Je vous prie d'agréer mes sincères salutations = I beg you to accept my sincere salutations
Je vous prie d’agréer mes sentiments les meilleurs = I beg you to accept my best wishes
Je vous prie d’agréer l’assurance de mes respectueuses salutations = I beg you to accept the assurance of my respectful salutations

and my favorite:

Je vous prie de bien vouloir recevoir, Monsieur / Madame, l’expression de mes sentiments les plus distingués = I beg you to very much want to receive, Monsieur/ Madame, the expression of my most distinguished sentiments

If you imagine them being signed with a fancy feather pen, it starts to make some historical sense. There are a few, simpler, more modern sign-offs that are still appropriate for business letters, but they are still notably less formal (you could imagine writing these with a ballpoint...). For simplicity, you can go with:

Cordialement (or Bien cordialement) = Cordially (or Very cordially)
Merci d'avance = Thanks in advance
Amicalement = Amicably
Amitiés = Friendly feelings
Chaleureusement = Warmly
Sincères salutations = Sincere wishes 

Even less formal:
A très bientôt = Until very soon
Bien à vous = Best wishes

And the least formal, most common among friends:

A plus = Till soon! (See you soon, Write you soon, etc)
Je t’embrasse bien fort = I hug you hard
Bisous = Kisses
Bises = Kisses

Since we are in France, kisses are not reserved just for romantic letters. You can kiss your friends on the cheeks here -- men and women -- so why not sign off that way?

I have to say that I am just culturally incapable of signing a letter, no matter how formal the situation, with anything as fancy as "Veuillez croire, Madame" or "Je vous prie..." I figure, they know full well I'm not a French speaker by the correspondence itself, which is low in classic finesse and high in American directness, so I usually go with a simple "Merci beaucoup" which is neither correct nor done -- except by me.
In Nov. 2012, after Obama's reelection, President Hollande amused and embarrassed the French when he posted a congratulatory letter on the Elysée (French equivalent of the White House) Facebook page, on which he signed off "Friendly," almost certainly meaning it as a direct translation of "Amicalement" or "Amitiés".
 image from Elysee Facebook page

So, Dear Readers, please want to believe me when I express to you my most distinguished and sincere sentiments in the joyful anticipation of continuing to share with you my stories, even when I myself flatly refuse to apply the lessons I am sharing and instead not so sincerely sign off my letters...

All the best,

THE CHEESE: Sancerrois

Sancerrois (pronounced "sun-sare-WA") is a raw, farmhouse goats' milk cheese in the classic style of the Berry region (historic name for a region including today's Cher and l'Indre departments near the Loire. Since the Arab invasion in the 700s, raising goats and making goat cheese has been a local specialty. This hockey puck of goat cheese, sometimes (more rarely) also called Le Berrichon, is like a large version of a Crottin de Chavignol and Crottin du Berry. But because it's bigger, the inside is creamier.

It's a lactic cheese, mellow but with a slight yogurt tang and subtle hints of pepper, especially in the more aged, harder discs. The cheese can be aged from 2-5 weeks, made between January through September, so there can be quite a difference in potency.
farmhouse, raw goat, from Berry


I get my letter sign-offs wrong, and -- frankly -- the translations I've given you above are too literal and, therefore, slightly off, too. Mostly, each and every sign off, no matter what the word, is just a very flowery, overly-complicated way of saying "Sincerely" which -- in a just-off way -- sounds very much like "Sancerrois".

Nov 16, 2014

Reflecting on Paris: Clacbitou


I want to tell you something that may surprise you: I wasn't always one of those people who was fanatic about Paris and waxed rhapsodic about the city, even when we planned to move here. For me, appreciation and affection for the city and for life in France is something that has built gradually. But now that I love it wholeheartedly, I thought it was high time for me to reflect on the city's reflection.

Nov 15, 2014

There's No Substitute: Vieille Tomme de Chèvre


Remember how your class tortured, disrespected, or generally ignored the substitute teachers? No need for that in France, because in general the kids don't have substitute teachers. No teacher? No class.

This is only true for middle and high school kids, who have multiple subjects and teachers per day. The primary school kids are still given substitutes. But the older kids simply miss out. Gigi missed nearly three weeks of math so far this year, alone, which is not ideal, but you won't hear her complaining.

If the teacher missing comes from the beginning or end of day, and there's any way to foresee it (missing due to a known commitment, teacher conference, etc.), then a message is sent home to parents: If we sign our approval, our child can simply come into school later or leave earlier. Math is Gigi's first class on many days: a 9:30am start mean lots of sleeping in.

If the class is in the middle of the day, or if there's not enough advance warning for parental permission (or if your child doesn't get the required signature for approval), the children go to "permanence", commonly called "perm", and meaning something like what Americans would call "study hall" (a supervised free period, that is). Or, if they're older, they go out for a smoke.

This is not just at my daughter's school. I've asked around. It's a common thing. The reason, I'm told, is that there just aren't enough substitute teachers, and it's too difficult to get just the right person qualified in specific subject matter for particular grade levels.

So Gigi's math suffers. But she's very, very well rested.

THE CHEESE: Vieille Tomme de Chèvre

Tomme de Chèvre? Pfft. It's nothing if it's not a Vieille Tomme de Chèvre -- an Old Goat Cheese. Unlike most goat cheeses, an old tomme is super dry and crumbly. It's very much like Parmesan, in all the best ways: salty, sweet, nutty, with a flavor explosion.

Many of these Vieilles Tommes are farmhouse cheeses, generally from the mountain regions, and always made with raw goats' milk. They can be aged as much as two years -- and they taste like it. This is so delicious, I am actually disappointed that my outdoor market cheese guy gives me a sample of it, because now I have no official need to buy it. Which means that all I get is the one taste.


Vieille Tomme de Chèvre is a delicious cheese, and I could say that there's no substitute for it. But, in fact, there is. It makes an almost perfect substitute for any of your fresh Parmesan needs, and conversely I think a nice hunk of Parmesan would substitute quite well if you're in the mood for a salty, nutty, tangy Vieille Tomme de Chèvre but can't find any. In fact, the next time I need some fresh Parmesan in the house, I'm going to buy a wedge of this instead (and then proceed to wolf it all down with the girls and Anthony and then, presumably, need to go out and buy more).

Nov 14, 2014

Chez Simon Montpelier: Saint Félicien


Following on the heels of yesterday's gourmet posting, this is a good indication our children have crossed over...to the French side. After so much traveling and eating out, they develop an obsession with restaurants and decide to create one in our house: Restaurant Chez Simon Montpelier (named after a ghost in a favorite childhood book, Which Witch?).

Nov 13, 2014

Wallet & Waistline: Révélation


The approximately 25 courses we eat don't seem so bad when they're spread out in a span of 21 hours. And nearly all of it is nearly-vegetarian. On the other hand. Of course, about 20 of the courses are at one single meal -- at a Michelin 3-star restaurant -- and the total cream/butter intake must be approaching several kilograms. Paris has a reputation for gastronomic heaven, and we're finally getting our slice of it.

I take Anthony out to a big dinner one night, and he takes me out to a huger lunch the next day. This might be seen as bad planning, but the kids are at camp, and we are celebrating our 15th anniversary. So all bets are off.

(I hate to be one of those people who shows you every thing I eat; really, I do. But I also figure this is part of the French experience -- perhaps more stereotypical than typical. But for those of you who don't eat fancy meals out in Paris (which is normally us, frankly), I want to give you a virtual taste.)

My choice is Dessance, considered Paris' first gastronomic dessert-themed restaurant (that opened early this year in the Marais), for a 5-course meal -- one savory and four dessert courses. But the dessert courses build, starting with lots of fruit- and even vegetable-based desserts and getting more intense, sweet, and dessert-y as they go.

For example, in the photo above, that green stuff you can just see poking out from under the mound of flavored mascarpone is icy pea granita. Not only can I not remember every one of the components now as I write this, I can't even remember all the components twenty seconds after the waiter leaves the table. "What did he say this stuff was? Some saffron cookie crumble thingie?" This is not just very delicious, it's also very unusual. Is it a vegetable? Is it a dessert? Is it a side-dish? It's really hard to tell, and that's the point at this restaurant. But I'd eat it again in a heartbeat.

This course looks a little more dessert-y, with its blackberries and cookie crumbs, and cream. But it's still only light sweet. Rich as all get out, but only lightly sweet.

And then they're this baked-Alaska style, Scandinavian-influenced pine-infused meringue covered citrus curd. The meringue alone is so pine-y, we feel we are actually eating the tree sap. This not necessarily a good thing, but just a little of the meringue with a good spoonful of curd turns out be smoky, deep, and complex. Now we see the power of the pine.

And finally, we're on something that actually looks more like a "regular" dessert. It's a bunch of flavors of home-made ice cream, ices, brittles, and sauces. Don't ask me what flavors. I am entering food coma, and what little information I was absorbing before is now trapped behind the many globules of cream in my brain.

Honestly, I don't get photos of every course, including the amuse bouche (though I remember my bouche being amused). You'll also notice I do not photograph our first savory course -- nor do I eat it, since it's a slice of veal carpaccio, and that's wrong to me on so many levels. I do like the vegetable purées they serve with it, but I just can't do the raw veal. I am also distracted by my handsome husband of 15 years sitting across from me suddenly hit by a fever and violent chills around course three. He's a trooper, and really likes his dessert, however, so he soldiers on. ("Are you about to pass out and die, Anthony, or shall we tuck into this ice cream?")

I am thankful Anthony is feeling all better -- and hungry -- by lunch on Friday, because we don't take reservations at a Michelin 3-star restaurant lightly (only our second or third, the other being French Laundry in the Bay Area; we have eaten at Saison in San Francisco, but that was before it was awarded 3 stars, so I'm not sure if that "counts").

I am also thankful that he made lunch and not dinner reservations. When you're sitting there eating 20-ish courses for over three hours, I genuinely prefer to be able to walk and burn it off for the rest of the day instead of heading straight to sleep. The added bonus is that it's a lot less expensive, too, but since I don't get to see the prices on the menu, I can't tell you exactly by how much. It's that kind of restaurant. (But, in the interest of being informative, I will tell you our final bill is something like $600, and I only drink one glass of champagne the whole meal. Thank goodness I have a low alcohol tolerance; it probably saves us the price of an airplane ticket!)

Anthony, who has been on a whole-food, nearly-vegan health-food kick (with occasional cheating, obviously) for a couple months now and who knows that I am all about the veggie and fruit side dishes and sauces, chooses the one and only perfect 3-star restaurant for our anniversary meal. Chef Alain Passard's restaurant Arpège, in the 7th arrondissement, is known for having done something truly radical: he removed all forms of meat (besides the occasional fish) from his restaurant. He doesn't claim to be vegetarian, as he does flavor things with great hams and bacons. But other than the occasional and very small amount of fish, you won't eat any red meat or poultry at his restaurant. And you won't miss it.

I don't get photos of every course that runs by us here, either, generally because it's so appetizing we often just dive right in. But we start out with beet, carrot, and pea purée tartelettes. With edible flowers. In pretty crust cups.

Beetroot sushi: It's light, and mild. It's nice, certainly, but officially Anthony's least favorite course. Possibly mine, too. Which isn't to say that I wouldn't eat an entire plateful for a snack right now if I could.

We probably wouldn't have ordered the pasta if we were ordering à la carte, dismissing it as too plain (who goes to a 3-star restaurant and orders pasta?!), so we're both happy that we're doing tasting menus, where the choice is up to the chef. This simple broth with handmade pasta and seasonal vegetables is, in a word, outrageous. It has about as much in common with the ravioli I eat at home as a Pavarotti aria does with me singing in the shower.

Sure, they're basically just grilled mushrooms (cèpes) on mashed potatoes. But there's a sweet-salty crunch, and it's perfection. It's like mushroom candy. They should give this out at Halloween. I'm in heaven. It may be the one dish I would eat every meal of my life, if given the chance.

It almost pains me to give Anthony some tastes of my mushrooms (it must be true love); while his corresponding course is still quite good, it's less spectacular. What was that?! I can't remember, and I can't identify, but I do know we enjoy it at the time.

The onion gratin is candy-like. Without exaggeration, I would be happy eating the onions gratin as dessert.

When I say Chef Passard is "nearly vegetarian", it's because of dishes like this: a thick pumpkin soup with a cream flavored with some sort of bacon. Oh, bacon. And insane amounts of cream. You really bring the humble pumpkin up a few notches.

At one point, an entire fish parades through the restaurant for those who've ordered that particular menu.

I actually do have some fish on my menu, though it doesn't come off that monster fish.

Fall vegetables, mostly from his own gardens outside the city, are consistently elevated to perfection.

One of our courses is a Moroccan-influenced dish (not the cous-cous). Though the entire dish may not be my single favorite of the evening, the tomatoes in it, which the chef has done in a confit-style, are so delicious that I inadvertently exclaim, "ooh!" then get choked up and actually start to cry. I literally cannot speak. I can't tell you if it's because I'm sad that I won't get to have that flavor any time I want it, or because I'm simply so astonished that something can be that delicious. I tell the chef, when he comes around later to chat up the room and wish us happy anniversary. I figure, if I were able to cook something so incredible it actually brought somebody to tears, I'd want to know.

Chef Passard is unusual not just for his decision to go nearly meat-free: Despite being a big name, he continues to do a lot of the day-to-day cooking himself, overseeing the small kitchen in person. And he's also a very friendly, down-to-earth guy; he not only comes around to chat with folks, he actually sits down with one woman whose friend is in the bathroom. It probably doesn't hurt that she's a pretty young lady, but I suspect he'd sit and chat with just about any friendly face.

The chef has just one picture up in his restaurant, of his grandmother, a cook and also his inspiration. She would have been proud. It's such a classy restaurant, they serve their silverware upside down. I so wish I could make a meal turn out this wonderfully just by setting my forks tine-side down.


There are too many dessert courses to count. Can I remember what flavor this pot de crème is? No. Just that it is insanely rich. Sure, it may only be three spoonfuls, but the chef seems to have somehow condensed a pint of cream in each bite.

The pineapple Napoleon: I almost finish it.

We are, by now, roughly 18 courses and three or four desserts in, yet they still bring out a special anniversary dessert for us -- a croquembouche made of mini apple tartes shaped like roses. Of course.


By the time we leave, after a few chocolates, homemade tomato confit candies, and petit fours, we are practically rolling out the door. Arpège sends us out with souvenir knives, but I can't say that I need a memento to help me remember the meal. It is most definitely one of the greatest meals of my life -- and so rich, it might just see me through to my 16th anniversary.

THE CHEESE: Révélation

Révélation is a raw sheep's milk cheese with cracked poivre de timut (timut pepper) in the layers of the cheese, which hails from Ossau Valley (home to the famous Ossau Iraty sheep cheese). Poivre de timut is a gourmet Nepalese peppercorn -- not your usual French cheese fare. In fact, the only other time I've seen it used is with Escarecelle, and that's no coincidence: Both Escarcelle and Révélation are made specifically for Laurent Dubois and his cheese shops, and M. Dubois "designed" both of these cheeses. Another version of Révélation, called Tartuffe, is layered with truffles, resulting in a very different aroma and taste.

For a hard cheese, Révélation is surprisingly creamy, other than the chewy pepper bits. The rind is rough and dry, but I really enjoy the taste and texture of it. It's got a sort of pasty, peppery feel to it and is like some sort of cheese-pepper-candy nugget in my mouth.

The cheese just sheers into pieces when cut and served. That's OK, because you can pick it off layer by layer.

Révélation is the kind of cheese that needs to be stored separately. It really has a knock-you-over waft of stink it emits, partly from the cheese and largely from the pepper. Let's just put it this way: I'm amazed I don't sneeze around it. And the taste follows suit: creamy, herby, with a truly unusual stink and tang. The pepper kick doesn't make it all that spicy, but it gives it a really different sweet muskiness that I haven't tasted in any other cheese.


Frankly, I choose this cheese because I feel that the tomato confit (and so much of the rest of both menus) is, indeed, a revelation. I just would never have known any individual bite -- of anything -- could ever taste so delicious. Révélation is rather a foofy gourmet cheese, too: limited production, exclusive sales, unusual imported ingredient, unusual flavor pairing.

But, you're wondering, did I have the cheese plate at Arpège? No. It is not on the tasting menu, and, frankly, it's not something I'd order at this point at a restaurant, since I have so much exceptional cheese at home and -- let's face it -- their cheese is not any better than the top-notch cheese I buy myself. But I am super curious: What's on the cheese platter here? They wheel it over so we can talk cheese and, yes, I can name half of them just by sight, and make an educated guess at the other half of more generic-looking ones.

Starting with the pyramid and going clockwise: Pouligny St. Pierre, Comté, LivarotSainte Maure de Touraine, Losange, Cathare, and St. Nectaire.

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