Nov 3, 2014

A La Mode: Mothais à la Feuille

A la mode has nothing to do with pie or cake, for a French person. In fact, if you ask for your dessert à la mode, instead of a scoop of ice cream, you will get a confused blank stare. A la mode means "in fashion" or "in style", and it may have seemed in style to call a scoop of ice cream some fancy French name, but that doesn't mean it's real French. When it comes to la mode in France, our girls are either slightly out of step or wild and daring trendsetters. The jury's still out.
The biggest difference between the way my kids dress -- even when they buy their clothes in France, mind you -- and the way their friends dress is color. Come to think of it, this is the biggest differentiator between my style and the French women around me. Perhaps it's a remnant of San Francisco, home to colorful fleece and tie-dye. Or perhaps it's just our natural predilection.
Back in San Francisco, one of Gigi's favorite school outfits, as a 6 and 7 year old, was a wildly colorful tutu. In fact, some of her friends and classmates went out and got tutus, too, whether inspired by her or just following the same trend, we'll never know. Just after we arrived in Paris, she wore it to school, in a great mood, but came home deflated: "Everybody kept asking me why I was dressed in a costume. They asked if I was going to do a circus." It broke my heart just a tiny bit that those comments crushed some daring spirit in her, and neither girl has ever again worn the tutus again except for "costume" purposes: here, posing for her future rock cover album.
The tutu wasn't a bust just because she was suddenly an 8 year old and too "mature". All the way down to the little kids, the French style seems to be dark, neutral colors -- lots of navy blues, grays, tans, browns, and blacks. It turns out that, in France, black is the new black.
And while everybody talks about daring French fashion, the general population here is generally conservatively dressed: stylishly plain. It hasn't always like this, we know, but that's the modern truth.
Which is why our latest family venture carries some risk to it. But Gigi is determined to dye her hair, in a way that I'm sure is probably fairly tame in San Francisco, but is really quite maverick here in Paris. In her school of approximately 1700 students, there is not a single one who has unnaturally colored, dyed hair.


We decide on "dipping" the ends, both because we think it will look cool and also because this way if it's a horrible disaster, we can easily chop it off and not ruin her hairstyle. But, it turns out, it's not a horrible disaster at all. My parents are in town for the event, and in fact it's the birthday present that Gigi asks for from Nana and Pop-pop. And even my parents are forced to admit, shockingly, that they think it looks great on her.

Because she has almost-black hair, we have to bleach before coloring, and we like the look both ways. That's helpful, since it's a plant-based dye that won't stay in for more than a month or so and will fade over time. We can re-dye, but this gives us the option to leave the tips a more "natural" color for a while, too.


Frankly, my biggest worry is sending her off to school: "If they pull you into the principal's office, just tell them that not only do your parents approve, your mom was actually the one to dye your hair. And if they still make you come home, we can always just cut it off." She gets a raised eyebrow or two, but no scolding, so we all breathe a sigh of relief. 
Naturally, or perhaps I should say unnaturally, Pippa wants to do it, too. Given that she's even younger and squirmier, and her hair is a very different texture, I don't think the bleach-and-dip-dye is a good idea. On the other hand, she has blondish streaks that we can easily color with a very temporary hair chalk.
Just days after Pippa shows up in school with hot pink streaks, another girl buys chalk and shows up with streaks, too. And Gigi has to give out the name of the bleach and dye brand (Manic Panic, if you want to know) to several kids. So we're just waiting to see if their parents approve enough to let them actually buy and use the stuff. In the meantime, we are out there, spreading the gospel of color to a mostly grayscale town.

THE CHEESE: Mothais à la Feuille
Mothais à la Feuille (pronounced "mo-TAY a la FOY" and meaning "Mothais on a Leaf"), sometimes called Mothais sur Feuille, which means the same thing, is a classic. It's a raw goats' milk cheese from Poitou-Charentes, which makes it a cheese I love before I even taste it. I have yet to meet a goat cheese from that region I don't love.
This does not disappoint. It's creamy, thick and shown here, frankly, with the wrong knife for the job. When young, it's actually softer and runnier, and it thickens with age. The taste is earthy, with a tang of lemon and hints of forest floor that comes from the leaf that wraps it, almost always local chestnut, but sometimes plane, and never a leaf that fell to the ground. The cheese is thickened in a room of high humidity to make the flavor fuller and then aged for two weeks.
Named after the town Mothe-Saint-Héray, the cheese has its AOC status since 2002, but has had its name since the 1800s. It's currently a farmhouse or artisanal cheese made by farms and cooperatives in the area, but not necessarily the village itself. Though it may not have been called Mothais à la Feuille, the cheese itself is actually believed to be much older than just a century or two. It's believed to be a cheese left from the time of the conquering Arabs, who introduced goats en masse and goat cheese to the region, in the 8th century.
The leaf is brown, so it would fit right into the typical Parisian color scheme. But Mothais à la Feuille is a trendsetting cheese, one that inspires many other cheeses to be wrapped and served on a leaf as well. For example, Fleur de Chèvre (left) and Pardoux (center) are blatant Mothais à la Feuille rip-offs and Montrachet (right) seems to have drawn inspiration from it, too.
A story about my girls à la mode (in style, that is, not topped with ice cream) calls for a cheese à la something, too.
P.S. While we're vaguely on the subject of pie, I just learned that a pie chart is called, in French, "un Camembert". How cheesy!


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