Dec 30, 2016

Into the Pages: Tome Leconet


There's a magic to getting lost in the pages of a great, vivid book, but how much more magical it is when you can turn around and get lost in the very area described in the vivid book. One of the beauties of living in the heart of Paris is that it's referenced so often in literature. Recently, I find myself loving All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, then walking around wide-eyed in the setting described and feel, just for a moment, like I get to live inside the pages.

Dec 23, 2016

Backwater King: Couronne d'Aydius


950 years ago on Christmas Day, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England, that insignificant little backwater island off the coast of Normandy. Looking at Dives-sur-Mer, Cabourg, and Houlgate, the tiny Normandy towns Guillaume left to go do his conquering, they seem like a pretty backwater place, too. But just like England itself, this spot in Normandy is a tiny place very proud of its history.

Dec 16, 2016

Quaint It Ain't: Le Chardin au Poivre


My friend recently posted on Facebook about pre-Christmas tradition in her area of Southern France, Tarare. On December 8th, homes around her region are lit up with candles on windowsills and balconies. Then families walk around at night to view their neighbors' homes, see street performances, and share some hot mulled wine. She and her kids lit 67 candles around their house. I bet you're thinking all of France is like that, and all our holiday customs here in Paris are so old-world, so charming, so authentic.

So. Let me take you on the school field trip I help chaperone to the mairie (City Hall) of the 5th arrondissement. As we approach the building, there is a small, temporary forest of Christmas trees, each decorated with foil bows. There's no nod to secularization, no Menorah, no religion-free and generic "Happy Holidays" written as a greeting. It's just pure Christmas. So far, so quaint.

Then we go inside for the show, held in a huge reception room with its combination of mid-19th century and also 1930s art deco grand chandeliers, murals, moldings, columns, wrought-iron balconies, and parquet floors. So evocative of eras gone by.

The lights dim, and the music comes up. We are blasted with the pop rock sock "All Star" by Smash Mouth. As the only native English-speaking adult in the room, I am probably the only one able to mouth along with the lyrics "Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me, I ain't the sharpest tool in the shed. She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb, In the shape of an 'L' on her forehead." Lovely holiday sentiment indeed.

The show itself shatters my preconceived notions of a city-hall holiday spectacle. A colorfully-clad woman gets up on stage and takes a minute to set up the premise that there is a genie locked in a box who is afraid of the dark. She booms into the microphone, "And the only way to help him is to sing songs from Walt Disney." She then cheerleads, "Do you know your Disney?! Can you help?"

And, as advertised, the show is -- 100% -- about quizzing the children on their knowledge of Disney movies, characters, and songs. Children are brought up on stage and asked in which movie can be found "Hakuna Matata" (the Lion King), or to repeat and identify the source of "supercalifragilistic-expialidocious" (Mary Poppins), or to name the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. Oddly, she quizzes them on a song from Anastasia, yet never once mentions the Little Mermaid.

Well, at least I learn something. Namely, that the dwarfs are called in French: Atchoum (Sneezy)  Grincheux (Grumpy), Dormeur (Sleepy), Timide (Bashful), Joyeux (Happy), Simplet (Dopey), and Prof (Doc, evidently having changed professions). Then she says something to the boy I don't catch, and the little boy adds, "Calixte". At first I think the French have an 8th Seven Dwarf I don't know about, but it turns out she has asked the boy for his own name. Still, he is very, very small.

Even in English, Pippa knows very few of these references, and she certainly doesn't know them in French. But she, and all the kids, enjoy screaming answers back to the stage and, of course, in the spirit of all field trips, avoiding any real school work. I am a bit baffled, though, and turn to one of the teachers to ask, "Was this sponsered by Disney, by any chance?" She laughs, as if I've made a good joke, but my question is sincerely meant. I'm not sure I would expect this kind of crass commercialism even in the US, except (naturally) at Disneyland itself. Or the mall.

And so, as the lights come back up in the audience, I leave you with this heartfelt holiday wish, as we are sung out of the mairie, again by Smash Mouth: "Hey now you're an All Star get your game on, go play. Hey now you're a Rock Star get the show on get paid. And all that glitters is gold. Only shooting stars break the mold."

THE CHEESE: Le Chardin au Poivre

Le Chardin au Poivre is a little nugget of a raw goats' milk cheese from Poitou-Charentes (now formally part of the newly created Nouvelle Aquitaine region), that bastion of all that is right and wonderful about goat cheeses.

The cheese was created in the 1980s, and comes in both plain and peppered varieties. Either way, they are aged for a minimum of 8 days, then often spend a few more in the store waiting, which thickens the mold and crust and intensifies the flavor. It ends up laced with gorgeous gray, black, red, brown, white, and even a tinge of green molds.

It's a perfect little goat cheese that fits in the palm of your hand, but even better in your mouth. There are great hazelnut, grass, and goaty notes in the Chardin itself and, of course, a great peppery (poivre) kick in the pants.


Le Chardin au Poivre looks like a little Christmas tree, complete with gorgeous multi-colored molds that cover it like tinsel on a tree, and little peppercorn ornaments. Nothing I could have chosen to go along with this post would have been as cheesy as the Christmas show itself.

Dec 9, 2016

Certifiable and Licensed: Fourmette de la Croix de Chazelles


When it's time to ride off into the sunset, an American cowboy hoists himself into the saddle and gallops away. A Frenchman stops to ensure he has the proper certification for the endeavor: Is he Level Galop 3 or above? Because in horseback riding, as in skiing, bread-baking, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, hair-dressing, and just about any other activity you can think of, the French are -- not surprisingly -- bureaucratic about classifying, naming, and certifying their accomplishments.

Dec 2, 2016

Frankly, Scarlet: Tome du Moulis


The Castle of Queen Blanche is possibly the most overlooked French castle there is. In truth, it's barely a castle. And it's tucked into a neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement. The history is a bit murky. Its greatest claim to fame is the color red. Cardinal red. Scarlet red.

The original building -- at the time in the countryside outside of Paris proper -- was built in the 13th century, most likely named after and lived in by at least one of three Queens: Was it Marguerite de Provence, the widow in morning after the death of her husband, King Louis XIV (Saint Louis), who had it constructed around the year 1290? She would have been known as a "White Queen" ("Reine Blanche") due to the white worn by widows in mourning. Other theories are that it was named for Blanche of Bourgogne (born around 1296), the wife of King Charles IV. Or Blanche de Castille, wife of Louis VIII and mother of Louis IX who died in 1252.

Historians are also split on whether this is the building in the description of a grand costume ball when some wild, feathered "savage" costumes caught fire in 1392, killing several friends of King Charles VI ("The Well-Loved" or "The Crazy", who ruled from 1380-1422) and almost killing the king himself. This was the same year the king was said to have gone crazy, slaying four knights and attempting to kill one brother who were riding with him in battle. He had bouts of paranoia and of being delusional, sometimes believing he was made of glass.

There is one written historical reference to Queen Blanche's castle from this time period, including a story of the fire, describing it as being "south of Paris" (which this would have been, till the area was incorporated into Paris borders in the 1800s).We do know that the original building was largely destroyed in a fire in 1392 and the remains were torn down in 1404.

The current building, built on the foundations of the older structure, dates to the 16th century. It was built by the family Gobelin (now the name of the neighborhood, and the metro stop), who used it as both a residence and their place of business: a dying factory. At the time, the Bievre river, a small stream, really, and tributary into the Seine, ran right through the neighborhood and right next to the small castle.

This is important in the Renaissance period, since water was required for the washing of fabrics and mixing the dyes. The fact that it was a small stream, which never flooded and which was easy to divert and manipulate (unlike the Seine) was an important factor: the stream could be split into two, allowing for mills from upper to lower levels. There are still canals dug out, now located in the current underground parking, that were used to channel water into the factory area and power horizontal mills -- that is, grindstones, used to grind up the materials used to dye fabrics.

all photos of old drawings taken from wall hangings at the Chateau de la Reine Blanche

This "teinturerie" had not just local significance, but worldwide renown. And that is solely because of the color red. Whatever this factory used to make its scarlets, their reds were deeper, more glorious, and longer-lasting than everybody else's reds. That made it the fabric and yarn-dying factory of choice for kings and cardinals -- the religious kind, that is. The Pope in Rome, the Kings of Europe, even the highest nobles in the New World would pay dearly for this red.

The family became wealthy, so wealthy that the castle was barely lived in more than a hundred or so years. Soon, they moved to Paris, to be closer to high society, and also to make room here in the Chateau de la Reine Blanche for the dying and drying.

It was so important to the Kings of France to have this rich red color, they were spared when the Huguenots (Protestants) were massacred in France (the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and aftermath of 1572). In fact, the Catholic Queen Catherine de Medicis (Italian widow of King Henry II of France, and mother of three French kings (in succession, as each brother died: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III) sent out troops to protect the Gobelin family and industry. If anything had happened to this factory, the Queen would have seen red, all right.

In case you're wondering -- I know I was -- "cardinal red" is named after this scarlet red color that cardinals (and bishops and popes and kings) wear. The North American bird, the cardinal, is named after the color (not the other way around), because the gorgeous red male plumage reminded people of the cardinals' robes.


So, in just about every old painting, when you see the red robes, you can assume that the threads and fabrics were died here at Les Gobelins.

Now, the castle and surrounding buildings (restored and built anew) are gorgeous, with a very hipster, rustic charm. An architecture firm makes its home behind rustic wooden doors to the side of the castle.

The tower in the castle serves no real purpose, other than to demonstrate the wealth of the family that owned the castle. They imported Flemish master carpenters to create this tower to nowhere.

The neighborhood is built up now, the Bievre stream long-since covered over and paved. But the Chateau de la Reine Blanche still stands as a reminder when, frankly, scarlet was not just a color but a social phenomenon.

THE CHEESE: Tome du Moulis

The Tome du Moulis (which could be spelled Tomme du Moulis, but is not) is a hard goats' milk cheese made from raw milk in the Pyrénées. More specifically, it comes from Moulis, a town in the department of Ariège. But less specifically, it may not always be made of goats' milk. Tome du Moulis also comes in cow and sheep and mixed milk versions.

The method of manufacture and the results are similar: the cheese is rubbed frequently during the aging process in order to obtain the hardened crust, gray when it's younger and ruddy brown when more aged. The interior, in the ariégeois tradition, may have holes in it, or it may be relatively smooth, like the sample I taste. It's a hard cheese, but one with a somewhat smooth and almost-creamy interior.

Usually, the cheese is aged between 4-6 months, with a 2-month minimum. The flavor will get more pronounced with time, but even at the older end, it's not a knock-your-socks off cheese. It does have character, and definite hints of flowers and grass, but it's more on the sweet than the stinky side. From experience, I can tell you that leftovers make excellent grilled-cheese sandwiches.


Mills and grindstones (moulins), powered by the local Bievre stream, were critical to the scarlet-dying process where ingredients -- including the secret scarlet ingredient -- had to be ground (moule). Unfortunately for me, Moulis is not the past tense, or future interieur tense, past participle, or even plus-que-parfait tense conjugation of the verb "mouler" -- to grind. It's actually a city name. But maybe if I went far enough back in history, the town was actually named after local mills, and there's a linguistic connection, after all.

In any event, I have a back-up connection or two. I get this cheese from La Cremerie Royale, which specializes in obtaining ultra-high end and rare cheeses (and delivering them by mail. Genius). Some of their cheeses have literally graced the tables of kings past and present -- not the actual hunk they send you, of course, but rather the same kind of cheese. The same king who might have eaten this Tome du Moulis could also have worn scarlet fabrics, dyed at the Gobelins factory.

And finally, it may be difficult to find a scarlet-colored cheese (but not impossible, thanks to some gaudy cheeses made with food dyes). The Tome du Moulis does have a reddish crust, but nothing close to scarlet. However, by coincidence, I do put this Tome du Moulis on a platter with some colorful splashes, thanks to a luscious batch of strawberries. They will not dye your fabric a royal scarlet, but they will stain your T-shirt red.

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