May 12, 2015

The Advantages of Being Small: Valromey


We've just been to the Vatican, will be in Luxembourg in a couple days, and are planning a trip to Guernsey this summer, so I realize when I say that France is a "small" country, it's all relative. But from an American perspective, it's small -- and noticeably so. For gymnastics, the advantages of being small are obvious; but being a small gymnast in a small country can be big.

Pippa makes it all the way to the Zone competition -- the step just before Nationals -- and one of her teammates (unarguably the most gifted gymnast on the team) actually does squeak into Nationals. The level of gymnastics here is somewhat mind-blowing. There are little girls in the 2004 category (so either 10 or 11 years old at the moment) who successfully land double back tucks on the floor, and -- on the beam -- crazy running front tucks and back-handspring/back-handspring/back-layout combinations.

If you look at what Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut did when they won their Olympics, it was not nearly this impressive. Seriously, Nadia's perfect 10 beam routine may have been beautiful, but there are 10-11 year olds here with higher difficulty levels. Everybody in the 9-10 year old category has a higher difficulty level than Olga Korbut's beam routine. That means that there's always somebody who gets hurt (not too seriously, we hope, but this child, who we don't know, was taken off in a stretcher).

Pippa is invited to travel and stay with the seven Nationals qualifiers from her gym, because six of them are 16-21 years old, and then there's Pippa's best friend, the sole little 9 year old. To keep her company and make her less stressed, Pippa goes along and has the time of her life. When the girls in the most elite level compete, Pippa also sees -- live -- two Olympians. She is, suitably, awed and inspired.

But we know that most of this field of kids would be outclassed in an elite American competition. In fact, France has only ever won one medal in the Olympics in women's gymnastics -- a gold medal on bars in Athens by Emily LePennec. The beauty of it being a small country is that Pippa has met Emily, as her father is, coincidentally, the physical therapist that helped re-align Pippa's thumb and wrist after her recent injury. For the obvious reason, he somewhat specializes in gymnastics injuries.

Coming from Paris, training around 8-10 hours per week in a recreational program, our little friend was, herself, outclassed in the Championnat de France, since virtually all the other qualifying girls train 20 hours per week in specialty programs. So she is thrilled just to make it to Nationals, and she performs beautifully, and even though she comes in 33rd out of 40th, we all feel like she's struck gold (her stated goal was "not to be last").

We appreciate that it's sometimes good to be a big fish in a small pond. The elite levels in the US are much higher, and that must partly come from the fact that the country draws from a talent pool over five times larger. The population of the US is just over 325 million people, whereas the population of France is about 65 million.

The team drives down from Paris to Cognac, where this year's nationals are held. It's a 5 hour drive, without traffic, and a 7 hour drive with the normal end-of-long-weekend bottlenecks in Paris. The longest anybody would have had to drive to get to Cognac, from the farthest reaches of the country in Nice or Strasbourg or Dunkerque, is around 8-9 hours. In fact, if you draw a line from the very top of France to the very bottom, it's only about a 10 hour drive. Of course, there are islands that are part of France (e.g. Corsica, and further off in the Pacific), but for the continental Hexagon, the North-to-South tip drive is almost exactly the same distance as the North-to-South tip drive in California -- around 1200km.

We can get to virtually any part of the country in either a 3 hour train ride (TGV) or 6 hour train ride (slow local trains with transfers). It's such a manageable and human scale compared to the US, with our multiple time zones and long flights just to go coast to coast.

When I was in 5th grade, I won the election for school store president with the slogan, "Good Things Come in Small Packages." It turns out that France is one of those small packages, and there are some real advantages to that.

THE CHEESE: Valromey

Valromey is a raw goats' milk cheese from the Jura Massif in the region of Rhône-Alpes. Valromey refers to the historical name of the region and also, in modern terms, to the name of a valley in the area.

Valromey comes in a small disc that can fit on your hand, but it's bursting with flavor. It's a tangy, salty, oozy, buttery goat cheese, with a velvety, dry crust. It's a cheese with character but not overly powerful.


I buy a small quarter chunk of this small disc of Valromey, which is around the size of a hamburger patty when whole. It's small, but packs a punch with delicious flavor and silky texture. It's a wonderful cheese that absolutely proves that good things come in small packages, and even though it comes from all the way across the country, it only took a few hours to get from the farm to my Parisian cheese shop.

I photographed it on a Paris-themed plate in honor of our little gymnast friend, who was the only Parisian who made it to nationals in the 10-year-old division: way to represent!


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