Apr 28, 2017

Tastes Like Chicken: Palouze des Aravis


Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In this story, it's the egg, but not a regular egg. Then it's the chicken, which isn't real chicken. So when is an egg not just a regular egg? When your French friend serves you quails' eggs for breakfast. They taste pretty much just like chicken eggs, though the shells are a whole lot prettier.

And as for that chicken: the French enjoy not merely chicken but rather a plethora of poultry; they feast on fowl; they binge on birds. Yes, they mostly taste like chicken.

If you're squeamish about your meats, then menus here are a minefield of chickens that are not chicken. You'll often see "volaille" used interchangeably as "chicken", though it really means "poultry." So be on the lookout for "Suprême de Volaille" on a menu, which is chicken breast, plain and simple. But probably not plain, because this is France. So almost certainly served in a sauce. When you buy chicken breasts raw, they are called "blanc de poulet" (literally "white of chicken").

You can also get nice, plump chicken breasts as part of your poularde, that is, fattened chicken.

There's duck of course: both confit de canard (essentially fried duck leg and thigh) or magret de canard (sliced duck breast). You will also see "canette" (duckling) on the menu and in the regular poultry isle of the grocery store. "Canette" also means a drink can, so you might see it on the menu in the beverages section, too. But you'll never see "Suprême de canard". Only chicken breasts reign supreme.

They do sell turkey (dinde) here in France, which is always nice for Americans as we come up on Thanksgiving. But more often than turkey, you'll find "caille" or "pintade" on menus, at butchers, and even in Picard, the frozen food store.

These are not considered exotic foods but rather other, perfectly acceptable, normal versions of poultry to enjoy. Pigeon is a little rarer (I mean less common, not less cooked) but still available in fine restaurants.

The finest French restaurants used to serve the infamous dish "ortolan" (a bunting), a tiny songbird that one ate cooked -- bones, beak, head and all -- until it was banned because the species was becoming endangered. When I say "one ate" I mean someone else ate, because it may taste like chicken, but you wouldn't catch me near it. I'll stick with chicken.

Even among chickens, you can get it right, or you can cock it up. You know that famous French dish "Coq au Vin"? We usually translate it as "chicken in wine sauce," but in fact the word "coq" means "rooster" and it used to indeed be made with rooster -- tougher and darker but supposedly more flavorful than the hens we usually eat. And that is one of the reasons it was stewed slowly in wine sauce, to break down the tough meat.

Older French people, especially those who grew up on farms eating true Coq au Vin lament that the stuff we eat nowadays doesn't come close for flavor. It's hard to imagine how different one chicken could be from another chicken, given that all the birds that aren't even chicken at all taste a lot like...chicken.

Your guide to volaille (poultry):

caille = quail
canard = duck
canette = duckling
coq = rooster
coquelet = young cockerel, baby rooster
dinde = Turkey (so a Turkey from India would be a dinde d'Inde)
orolon = bunting / song bird (now illegal to eat in France)
pigeon = pigeon
pintade = guinea fowl
poularde = fattened chicken
poule = hen
poulet = chicken
poulet de Cornouailles (or poulet Cornish) = Cornish game hen, which you'll never find in France
volaille = poultry, but often used synonymously with chicken

THE CHEESE: Palouze des Aravis

Palouze des Aravis is a farmhouse, raw cows' milk cheese that comes from the Aravis area of the Alps. In the local, traditional dialect, "palouze" is a hard disk, which sums up the shape pretty well. In fact, the particular specimen I find is a slightly fatter disk than usual. Usually, the disks are the height of a focaccia, whereas mine is almost fluffy like a two-layer cake. But the outside is pure Palouse des Aravis: gray, thick, dried-out crust that looks like a boulder.

It's a summer cheese, meaning the milk comes from the cows who are spending their summers grazing on the green hills in the mountains. You can certainly buy it beyond the summer season, however, because it's aged at least 5-6 months. This a great example of how historically cheese was a way of preserving milk and summer flavors for the cold winter months. You can imagine milking the cows in the July, getting all sorts of grass, herb, and flower flavors in the milk, then enjoying the cheese in the freezing cold of February.

The milk is uncooked, then the cheese is pressed to eliminate a lot of the liquids. That beautiful crust is washed only once at the beginning of the aging process, then allowed to dry out, toughen up, and develop natural molds.

The exterior belies what's inside. While a Palouze des Aravis certainly can be super aged and dried out (getting thinner as it goes, generally), mine is still plump and moist. For a hard cheese, that is. There's a hint of creaminess as it warms up in the mouth. The flavor is buttery and sunny, with some of those classic sweet, nutty, grassy hints of a good mountain cow cheese. It's got character but is by no means a super powerful or stinky cheese.


This connection is a very big stretch, because this cheese tastes nothing like chicken. But at the very least, in a kind of anagram-ish way, you can at least use the letters of Palouze to spell out "poule" meaning "hen". Yes, that's honestly the reason I chose this cheese. Desperate times call for desperate measures.


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