May 15, 2015

Bread and Water: Brie de Montereau


Prisoners get it. And so do chic bistro-going Parisians. And the rest of the French. Bread and water -- the stuff of life, and even more so here in France. The Fête du Pain (Bread Festival) tent is once again erected in the square of Notre Dame. To be more precise, it takes over the square in front of Notre Dame. It's the one and only thing each year that the city deems worthy of this place of honor: absolutely nothing is more sacred to the French than their bread.

Each year, the girls go into the tent, on their own and/or with school field trips, and learn about how bread is made -- from farmer to boulangerie -- and get to make their own bread. And eat it, bien sûr.


It is almost unheard of to sit down at a restaurant -- no matter how small, crappy, fancy, or remote -- and not get a basket of bread. Even if you're eating a full meal of Moroccan cous-cous. Or Thai food. Sometimes, the combinations get a little bizarre. To be fair, our favorite, more authentic Chinese noodle spots do not give us bread, but I suspect that even they are toying with the idea.

After all, it's what French people expect. I have several French friends who swear they cannot eat a meal without bread. It just wouldn't be a meal. The schools agree, and neither of our girls has ever been offered a school lunch without bread. Lunch without bread? Sacré bleu! Do they think we're savages?!

Officially, according to some bread organization or other, 98% of French people surveyed eat bread. Regularly. Suck on that, Atkins diet! 54% of children, 68% of teenagers, and 85% of adults eat bread every single day, according to the survey. Frankly, I'm shocked those numbers aren't higher.

When you go to a restaurant and are offered your basket of bread, you should know that you will be offered neither a) butter, unless it's a fancy restaurant nor b) a bread plate. You just stick your bread on the table and start ripping it apart with your hands (your fries, meanwhile, are eaten politely with a fork. There's no rhyme or reason). It is, in fact, just about the only truly acceptable finger food. In even very polite society (that is, somewhere other than our family dinner table), you can use the chunks of bread to push your food onto your fork, and also to sop up delicious sauces.

In Italy, we were not only served bad bread, we were usually charged a cover charge for it, even though it came automatically and sat there untouched. The French side of us was appalled.  Bad bread? For a fee?! Sacré bleu! Do they think we're savages?!

To wash down your bread, you should know that when you sit down at your French bistro of choice, you always have the right to ask for a carafe d'eau -- a pitcher of tap water. Throughout the country, it's very drinkable water and free (and more environmentally friendly that ordering plastic or glass bottles). It's a very rare spot that will make you pay for bottled still water, if you don't want to. Bubbly water is, of course, a different story.

THE CHEESE: Brie de Montereau

Brie de Montereau, in the awesomely delicious Brie family, is a raw cows' milk, classic Brie made in the Seine-et-Marne department from the Ile de France region, which is to say just around Paris. It is not, specifically, made in Montereau-Fault-Yonne but rather is named after the town because that's where the principal markets used to be, where the Brie was initially sold. It can also sometimes be called Ville-Saint-Jacques, which is probably the town where the cheese was originally created, just down the road from Montereau-Fault-Yonne.

Montereau, for short, is an old town with a lot of history, and the King of Navarre Charles II lost control of it in front of the future King Charles V in 1359. It was also the spot of one of the late victories of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1814.

Brie de Montereau is very similar to a Brie de Melun, and is aged around one month, ending up with a thick, white moldy crust and an inside that just can't wait to ooze to the outside. Besides the velvety, luscious texture that seems like it's decadent melted cheese just at room temperature, it's also delightful because of the buttery salty tang, laced with mushroom and herbal notes.


There is "eau" ("water") included in this cheese name, much as your carafe d'eau and basket of bread are included at your French bistro. Plus, this is the sort of oozing, goopy, melty cheese that absolutely cries out for a basket of bread.


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