Feb 28, 2015

Look Deep Into My Eyes: Raclette Braisée


It's not what you say when you toast somebody in France that's so important, it's what you do. The French toast with a "Santé!" ("Health!") or "A votre santé!" ("To your health!") or the more cryptic "A la votre!" ("To yours!").

While you say this, you raise your glass to make your toast. You clink glasses with your table-mates. But above all (above all!) make sure that you look directly into their eyes when you do so. This is critical -- do you hear me? critical! -- because if you fail to look into somebody's eyes at the moment of toasting, French tradition say that you will have bad sex for seven years. And the French really cling to their traditions.

I know, there's that old adage that sex is like pizza, and even when it's bad it's good. But that's an American adage. The French don't give a rat's pitootie about pizza, or about bad sex. There's sex, and then there's good sex, and they want the good kind, thank you very much.

Because the French take their wine, and their sex, very seriously, they honestly do make very sure to look each person in the eye as they clink their way around the table. They look so pointedly at you that you sometimes need to remind yourself that they're not actually planning to have sex (good or otherwise) with you, personally. Or, maybe they are: they're French after all. Cheers!

THE CHEESE: Raclette Braisée

This version of a raclette cheese, Raclette Braisée, comes pre-toasted, or braisée. A cows' milk cheese, like all raclette cheeses, this one is pasteurized and comes from the Lot-et-Garonne department in the Aquitaine region in southwestern France. This is generally far from the Alpine country where you'd expect to see raclette cheese, but it works anyway.

The toasting, in this case, refers to the smoking of the cheese while it's being aged. It imparts a lovely, mellow smoky flavor that goes perfectly once the cheese is re-toasted into oozy sheets melted over baked potatoes and ham, raclette-style. It can be eaten cold, and it's not even bad that way, but I'm not sure why you'd want to, when it's made for melting.


Not only is raclette a great dinner to toast your friends around (though not a dinner that's exactly a boon "to your health!"), this particular raclette is, itself, toasted -- braisée, that is. While we eat our Raclette Braisée toasted on the little device for the home cook, I would have loved to have it toasted by a toasty Alpine chalet fire before we toasted over it.

Feb 26, 2015

When Worlds Collide: Venaco


During a conversation in which we are lamenting the gray weather -- and gray mood -- in Paris (it doesn't help that there's a flu epidemic, too, and literally everybody we know either is, has just been, or is just about to be sick), the French woman says, "It's too bad that we have that Germanic joie de vivre. And yet," she continues, "we'll cross the street anywhere, no matter what color the light is, just like the Italians. It's like we got the worst of each."

An interesting thought: what have the French absorbed from their neighbors? Of course, there's a huge difference in the French from Provence vs. the French from the North. So, for the purposes of this musing, I'm thinking specifically of the Parisian and near-Parisians:
  • Germanic joie de vivre, but not the Germanic nose-to-the-grindstone work style. This, of course, shows in the GDP and economic reports.
  • A Germanic love of Freud, psychology, and the embracing of angst.
  • The Italian appreciation for wine, food, and a long meal, yet a near Germanic-level avoidance of vegetables.

  • It may not exactly be joie de vivre, but the French certainly have the more Mediterranean appreciation for a vacation. Long vacations, and as many as possible. This may also be reflected in GDP and economic reports.
  • A Swiss/Germanic style of bureaucracy. This is mostly a legacy of Napoleon (who was a Corsican, and therefore culturally more Italian), but that doesn't make it any less Swiss/German feeling now. Things do not get accomplished on a handshake or a bribe but rather when filled out in triplicate and filed properly, with official ID photos cut to the prescribed millimeter. Which is not to say a bribe and a handshake can't help matters along, at times.
  • Driving, especially around the complex star-intersection round-abouts is definitely Italian.

Venaco is a farmhouse cheese from Corsica named after the town of Venaco in the middle of the island, where it is made. In Corsican, the cheese is called Venachese, meaning "From Venaco".

It's a farmhouse cheese that can be made from raw or pasteurized sheeps' milk, and sometimes sheep and goats' milk combined. It comes in a roundish square block (or a squarish circle?). Sometimes it's tall-ish. Sometimes it's flat-ish. Which is to say that there's a fair amount of variety in the Venaco versions I see. But one thing is always the same: an orange rind -- lightly ridged and reeking of sweat-socks, a delightfully frightful odor developed during the four months of aging.


It's a creamy cheese, one that would get downright oozy if it sat out in a warm room before I took the photo. There's that slightly rancid-sweet funk of a stinky cheese that you either love or hate. Although this is not strictly true as I'm not normally a huge orange stinky cheese fan, but every once in a while, I welcome the intensity. The version I try is pasteurized and, perhaps, a little mellower for it, in which case I think I'm happy to not be eating the raw version.


This is a French cheese with an Italian sounding name made in what was formerly part of Italy, and while one of the versions I photograph is made at a farm called Germain, we actually consume it with friends in Switzerland. So, it seems like an appropriate cheese to talk about which aspects of neighboring cultures the French resemble, for better or worse.

Feb 24, 2015

Dragons, Sheep, Lions, Drums, and Cops: Tomme Chèvre Ariégeoise


It's that time of year when I like to really mix my cultures -- celebrating Chinese New Year in Paris.

This year, what really strikes me is the incredible number of officers and security guards lining the parade route. It's as if we've come to see a police parade. I can only assume that this is in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, because it wasn't like this last year.

Feb 22, 2015

Process vs. Product: Tomme de Chèvre du Béarn


Things you get point marked off for at American elementary school on your math test:
  • Getting the wrong answer.

Things you get points marked off at French elementary school (and sometimes middle school) on your math test:

Feb 20, 2015

Physalis, The Phrenchest Phruit: Fote des Bergères


Aah, the physalis -- the Phrenchest phruit you've never heard of. It's the exact size and texture of a firm cherry tomato. It's tangy and acidic, and not much sugarier than a (sweet) cherry tomato either. It's so much like a cherry tomato, in fact, that it's hard to think of it as a fruit (and don't even start with the "but tomatoes are a fruit" argument).

Feb 18, 2015

Dinner Time: Raclette Vin Blanc


I don't mean to complain about French dinner invitations. I am always happy to be invited to dine elsewhere. But the timing presents some challenges for this American family. For example, this Saturday, we are invited to a French person's house at 8pm. That means we will show up at 8:05 and be the first people there, possibly awkwardly so. The French will show up around 8:30 and there will be at least one guest who doesn't show up till 9pm. We will wait for them.

Feb 16, 2015

I Am Very: Chèvre Fermier du Tarn


I am very dog. I am very strawberries-and-cream crêpe. I am very tropical beach.

I am not very spider, very hot dog, or very snow camping.


If you haven't already figured it out, "je suis très ..." -- meaning "I am very..." -- is a common French way to express just what it is you are really a fan of.

This only fails to work on rare occasion: If, say, you're a fan of the French, or of the French language, you might be tempted to say, "je suis très français," but that would just mean you actually are very French. Rather, you could say, "je suis très langue française" -- meaning "I am very French language." Well, actually, I don't know if you could say it, but I certainly can, because I am, indeed, very French language.

THE CHEESE: Chèvre Fermier du Tarn

As the name suggests, this is a farmhouse goats' milk cheese from Tarn. It's made at the Collines aux Chèvres farm, which not only houses a herd of 200 goats grazing on a large property, but also regularly hosts interested visitors and students on field trips, in this case literally in the field.

The farm sits in the department of Tarn, just outside of the town of Andouque, in the Midi-Pyrénées. Their fresh-air, well-petted goats produce a thick, creamy cheese, mild and sweet and buttery, with just a hint of salty-citrus tang.


As you must know,  je suis très fromage. I am very cheese. But, more specifically, I am very goat cheese. There are some cow and sheep cheeses I find sublime and will rave about till the cows (or sheep) come home. But in general, when I walk into a cheese store, I instinctively turn towards the goat section and am, in particular, tempted by soft and creamy goat cheeses -- either spreadable or melt-in-the-mouth. They may not always be the strongest or more unusual tasting cheeses, but they're just like candy to me -- buttery, creamy, tangy, salty, herbal, with just a small savory, gamey edge.

Feb 14, 2015

Cheese of Love: Coeur de Camembert au Calvados


French is the language of love. Paris is the city of love. And cheese, it turns out, is the food of love. And not just because I love it. When it comes to phenylethylamine (PLA) --  the component that is considered to make chocolate an aphrodisiac by triggering the release of dopamine, the pleasure-seeking inducer -- cheese has 10 times more of it than chocolate itself.

If you really want to emphasize the romantic nature of cheese, there are many more cheese hearts available, including:

Coeur Estragon                                                                Coeur Vendéen

Here's a little Valentine for you in honor of Valentine's Day:

Other cheeses have not only the dopamine-inducing PLA but also other ingredients traditionally thought to be aphrodisiacs, like figs and truffles.


La Tartuffe (with truffles)

This cheese looks like breasts.

One breast-shaped cheese is even named after a fig.

But, interestingly enough, in the French tradition of food and art, figs don't represent breasts at all. Rather, they represent manliness -- testicles, to be specific. That's due to not only the shape of the fig but also to the seeds when you cut it open, which do look a lot like sperm. Either way you cut it, masculine or feminine, figs (and anything invoking the shape and name of fig) are considered a highly sensuous food.

You can love any cheese, but this, in particular, is a cheese of love; it says so right in the name:

 I hope you enjoy Valentine's Day -- and some cheese -- with somebody you love.

THE CHEESE: Coeur de Camembert au Calvados

Like the Coeur Gourmand Figue, which is named for a heart but not shaped like one, this "Heart" is not heart-shaped, but rather, the heart of the cheese. It's a Camembert with the crust cut off when it's half-ripe, then fished off with a soak in Calvados, an apple liqueur of the same region as the cheese, Normandy, for about 3-4 hours. It's then dipped in a coating of bread-crumbs, which absorb both the moisture and the cheese-alcohol combo flavor, so that it looks like it has a crust anyway, and aged around 3 weeks.

Best served runny, it's a complex flavor and a real treat for all the senses. Texturally, it's not just oozy and melty, it's also got the dry crumbly bread-crumb crust. But it's the taste that really shines on many levels: salty, buttery, and earthy from the cheese itself with an astringent kick of alcohol softened by the sweetness of apple. The cheese has a powerful one-two punch of a waft, and the children are really not fond of it (really, really not fond of it). But then again, perhaps an alcohol infused stinky cheese is not really meant for them.

This is something of a classic cheese, a special take on a Camembert, made with cows' milk (usually pasteurized but occasionally raw), that you can find throughout France, at many fine cheese stores and even sometimes in regular grocery stores.


While it's not shaped like a heart, it's named after a heart -- the Coeur de Camembert, which is then aged with apple liqueur. When you think of the phenylethylamine, the name with "heart", the symbolism of the apple, and the kick of the alcohol, that's one romantic, cheesy aphrodisiac!

Feb 12, 2015

Get Stuffed: Bûche Saint-Loup


About the only place you'll see a greater concentration of stuffed animals than in a 5-year old's bedroom is in the windows of Paris' shops. But the ones in Paris are real stuffed animals. Well, real animals, stuffed.

Feb 10, 2015

Raspberry Beret: Le Mervent


She wore a raspberry beret...the kind you buy in a second hand store. And that's because it's cold in Paris, really cold. Not New-England-15-feet-of-snow-on-the-ground cold, but bitter and biting nonetheless.


Feb 8, 2015

Unto Her a Son Is Born: Berger Plat


And, finally (finally!), my friend has her baby here in Paris. It feels like an eternity -- to her more than anyone. She ends up going to almost 42 weeks -- about 12 days overdue by American standards. She is induced two days after her French due date because, even to them, it seems like it has to be time already.

Feb 6, 2015

Operation Liberation Leftovers: Vieux Léon


If the purpose of living abroad and immersing ourselves in French society is for cultural exchange and enrichment, then I think I can be proud of not only what our family is gaining, but also what we are leaving behind. I call it Operation Liberation Leftovers: I have freed my friend from the tyranny of preparing a four-course meal.

Feb 4, 2015

The Blue Hour: Bleu de Bocage


In general, I like to write about things you might not know about France, French language, French culture, French history, or, of course, French cheese. In this case, however, I might be writing about something I don't know about and you do. While I'm trying to make a quick sketch-painting of this photograph of Collioure (pronounced "Coal-YURE") in southern France, my fellow art-class students comment on my lovely "heure bleue" subject.

Feb 2, 2015

That's Funny Sheet, Beach: Pitchounet


Sitting in the stands, watching the girls warm up to the strains of pop music for their gymnastics competition, I cannot help but giggle. At the moment, the song playing is Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here". It's got a cheerful melody, a good beat. And the lyrics "It's hard out here for a bitch." Then voices chirpily echo "a bitch, hard for a bitch, for a bitch." I'm the only one laughing, but not because the other parents are too horrified to be amused. Rather, they're completely oblivious.

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