Sep 24, 2016

Tricking the Eye: Bleu d'Auvergne


Trompe l'oeil is an art technique that, in theory, dates back to the Greeks. Practically speaking, however, it was during the Renaissance, when painters finally understood about perspective, that it really took hold. With a name like "trompe l'oeil", used in just about every language to describe the phenomenon and literally meaning "fooling the eye", it's clear that no matter who invented it, the French named it and claimed it.

Wait. Where did the famous glass pyramid go? You see what they did there at the Louvre? Trompe-l'oeil on a grand scale. This fancy example really tickles my fancy. If I do not have the horizontal architectural features perfectly aligned, it's because I am not willing to spend an hour waiting on a line for the precise square millimeter of sidewalk real estate where everything lines up perfectly.


This is not the only large-scale trompe-l'oeil to be seen outdoors in Paris. As I've written before, some of the scaffolding for the renovation projects are quite excellent versions of trompe-l'oeil. Even if your oeil is a little less tromped, here, it is still pretty clever. And certainly a sight prettier than mere scaffolding.

The owners of this building, in the 6th arrondissement, simply felt that the one side needed some more windows. The trompe-l'oeil is good enough that even though I've passed this building hundreds of times, I've never noticed it was painted on until now.


Nearly any place you find classic grand decorations, you'll find some examples of trompe-l'oeil. Inside the Louvre is this garden gazebo, with its view out to the garden, painstakingly painted on a two-dimensional wall in the apartments of Napoleon III.

The Opera, of course, has its share. But nothing demonstrates the technique better here than the occasional exhibits of stage sets, which are the ultimate large-scale exercise in perspective and fooling the eye.

Take this example, from a fairly small chapel in the 5th arrondissement with a very long and somewhat bizarre name: La Chapelle des Bienheureux Martyrs de l'Eglise Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes (The Chapel of the Very Happy Martyrs of the Church Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes. But why are they so happy to be martyred?). You see the gold frame of the painting, set in the gray cement sculpted moldings? Tricked you.

Right next to it, the trompe l'oeil is less effective, however. This probably isn't fooling anybody.

Even in very simple places in Paris, you run across trompe-l'oeil. Just recently in a restaurant in Paris, I look up to the ceiling and see this:

In researching this subject, I come across what have to be two of my favorite trompe-l'oeil paintings, by Jean-Etienne Liotard, an 18th century painter from Geneva who I suspect would have been a pretty funny guy. No matter how much I tell myself it's trickery, my brain still sees it as three-dimensional. In this, Trompe-l'oeil with a Partial Portrait of Maria Theresa of Austria, 1762-63, the portrait is painted on half of the (real) wood, to which the medallion has also been added -- in paint. It is a completely two-dimensional work, on one surface.

In this one, Trompe l'oeil with Two Bas-reliefs and Two Drawings, 1771, the wood is fake. The bas-reliefs are fake. The nails holding the reliefs on are fake. And the drawings are not on separate pieces of paper. Again, the entire thing is painted on one surface, with shadows thrown in just to mess with our minds. Consider mine fully and thoroughly messed.

The tradition is alive and well even in modern times -- for example, here at an amusement park in Normandie, near a boat ride. I wonder if it fools the safety inspector?

And more from the same park:


Here on some Parisian street art:

This urban art isn't exactly trompe l'oeil, but as a threesome, it kind of messes with my mind in a trompe-l'oeil-ish way.

And at a recent outrageously delicious (yet reasonably-priced) gourmet meal with Anthony (Restaurant A.T. in Paris -- one of our new favorites!), we are delighted by a trompe-l'oeil course, that in fact trompes the oeil not once but twice.

It appears at first that our foie gras is covered with shards of broken plates. But no, it turns out to be very smooth meringue, perfectly colored to look like the plate it sits on. It's really quite funny, and I suspect the chef either has a good sense of humor or has gone completely mad there in the kitchen making us our dinner.

And then the second time, we are fooled because underneath the meringue, it looks like a couple of chocolate cubes with caramel sauce. That's confusing, since we're only on our third (or fourth?) appetizer (who can keep track?) and in fact it's savory foie gras served with some plum butter.


As an aside, but a particularly relevant one as I start to fill out my absentee ballot (vote early, vote often!), I would like to point out that "trompe" -- pronounced exactly "Trump" -- means to cheat or trick or fool. How appropriate. Now, for the love of God, and more exactly the love of humanity and the planet, please make sure you Americans get out and vote!

THE CHEESE: Bleu d'Auvergne

Bleu d'Auvergne is an amazing cheese, and one of the most amazing things to me is that after 500+ cheeses, I haven't yet covered it. How is that even possible? It's a well-known cheese that has its AOP status since 1975. That's plenty of time for me to have discovered it. But somehow, it always gets overshadowed by Roquefort and family.

That's a shame, because it's a lovely cheese, in every sense. It's got the gorgeous, huge veins (more like tunnels) of blue-gray mold running through it, sometimes going so dark it's not a blue cheese, but practically a black one. It's made from cows' milk in the Massif Central, that is, in the heart of Auvergne, as the name suggests.

The flavor is intense, as most people expect (love/hate) in a powerful blue cheese. It's tangy, with hints of mushrooms and wood. The texture is that soft, melt-in-the-mouth creaminess that characterizes this sort of cheese. While it's origins aren't completely known, local conventional wisdom says it was introduced in the region in the middle of the 19th century, west of Clermont-Ferrant, by a local farmer when he took some mold from his rye bread and injected it with a needle into this curdling milk. I suspect there was more finesse in the process than that brief story would lead us to believe. The European commission who oversees the AOP status has a simpler version stating that it was developed in the early 19th century on the high volcanic plains of the Massif Central, and reached Paris in 1879.


The way I've photographed it on this gray-blue plate, I notice that there's a sort of trompe-l'oeil effect here: It looks as if the cheese has holes, like Swiss cheese, and that we are seeing the plate through them. In fact, we are seeing the blue-gray mold, which gives the cheese its Roquefort-like characteristic tang.

It also looks as if I've eaten several bites before remembering to take the photo. But here again, your eyes deceive you: I simply asked for the thinnest slice possible, and the server aimed for a slice that was, evidently, just a little thinner than actually possible. That's OK, because it tastes just the same -- very nice indeed -- and I wasn't fooled or tricked by the flavor or texture.


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