Jun 9, 2017

Crazy, Not Crazy: Le Gratte Paille


This is a story about Puy du Fou, which seems like it would mean "Water Well of the Crazy Person" except that in this case "fou" does not mean "crazy". Puy du Fou, in the old local Vendée dialect, means "Hill of the Beech Tree." It is neither a hill, nor a tree. It's a theme park, with no rides. An amusement park, for education. Many people, especially non-French, might think we're crazy for wanting to go an educational theme park that has no rides. And we are crazy. Crazy for history.

We're not the only crazy ones, either; Pur du Fou, a theme park revolving around French history and offering no rides, inconveniently located in the countryside an hour from Nantes and far from all major railways and airports, is the second most-visited theme park in France. Only Disneyland, which has both celebrity and location (just outside Paris), going for it gets more visitors. In 2012, it won the Thea Classic Award in Los Angeles for the Best Theme Park in the World, and in 2014, it won the Applause Award in Orlando for the Best Theme Park in the World. And Los Angeles and Orlando are places where there's some stiff competition in this category.

One of the first villages we see upon entering the park is Le Bourg 1900 ("You are entering the 20th century"). Since we live in Paris, this turn of the century Belle Epoque France feels fairly familiar.


We take lunch in the Belle Epoque, dinner in the Renaissance.

Going further into the park, and further back in time, we like the look of the Medieval Village a lot.


When we go back in time, we really like to dress the part. Except for the footwear. Comfortable sneakers are imperative in any century, as far as I'm concerned:


Also important in any century: sun shade, especially since we are there during a summer heatwave. There are no vendors walking around selling cold drinks or ice creams, but we do see roving hat-sellers. As you can see, we have a taker.


Here, Les Vikings show gives you an example of why the French word "spectacle" makes more sense for what we see at Puy du Fou; they're not simple little plays, they're huge extravaganzas with all sorts of special effects and trickery. They are spectacular in every sense. Not only does the gray tower in this photo fall over, for example, but the Viking boat, which is not there at the beginning of the show, emerges slowly from the bottom of the lake. Better yet, when it emerges, there is a battalion of live soldiers on it already, in full Viking regalia. I have to imagine that a) they access the boat from some underwater tunnel (especially since a few of them "drown" later and never reappear) and b) they wait under there with scuba breathers until the last moment and c) this is not exactly historically accurate, since the Vikings probably sailed their ships into France rather than having them magically emerge from the deep.

Things go on fire, too. Boats, buildings, soldiers. This a recurring favorite effect in the park: fire.

Here we are at the Le Secret de la Lance, the story of Joan of Arc. There is a whole lot of mysticism and magic going on, which I suppose is somewhat appropriate given that who she was. And where we are. I never change seats, yet you'll notice what is in front of me changes drastically: I see ramparts, then the castle, then the castle shooting jets of fire, and finally the entire castle rotates around, so that I'm looking at the other side of it.


The Renaissance-era Versaille-esque fountains are quite a nice rest on a hot day, sitting in the shade, listening to some classical music, hoping the slight breeze will carry over some of the mist.

At night, things get a little more dramatic, for Les Orgues de Feu (The Organs of Fire) show. Again, scuba gear must be involved, because this live person rises up from the middle of the pond, slowly, "playing" his piano. Yes, both he, and the piano, are fully electrified. Glowing dancers whirl around the surface of the water. We spend the whole time shooing away the mosquitoes yet still love it. It's very theme-parkish and not realistic at all, but not everything has to be serious and educational.

This one is, though: Here in Les Amoureux de Verdun (The Lovers of Verdun), we walk through World War I trenches, with lots of shaking, bomb noises, and a combination of robots and live actors as soldiers and nurses. It's quite moving actually and definitely as close as I hope to ever come to being in the trenches.

I'm pretty sure this is as close as I ever will come to being in an ancient Roman arena, watching gladiators and chariot races at Le Signe du Triomphe. Yes, it's re-created and staged and possibly a little cliché. On the other hand, when and where else am I going to get to sit there and feel -- rather than just imagine -- what it might have been like 2000 years ago in the Coliseum? Needless to say, there is no actual blood shed and (I hope) no animals harmed in this production.

I visit the park with just Gigi, our familys history buff, which turns out to be perfect. Pippa would have enjoyed some of it, would have complained about some of it, and would rather be where she is, visiting with friends. There's too much that's only in French for Anthony to have enjoyed (or understood) it. There are English-translation headsets for some of the bigger shows, and I'm sorry he missed jut two of the shows that I think he would have particularly loved: the ancient Roman arena and Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes, a falconry show.

I find this so beautiful and moving, I literally get tears in my eyes. Yes, I know the whole thing is not "real" and it might sound tacky, but I can see why people love this park. Since we can't travel back in time for real, this is as close as we're all going to get.

This is about as close as I'm going to get to this falcon, also. Is he a falcon? There are so many gorgeous birds -- enormous and small, vultures, raptors, falcons, owls, eagles -- and I'm not sure which one's which. The show involves 150 rare and endangered birds, and the bird center in the park is used for education, conversation, and re-population efforts (apparently, I could use some more bird education). During one part of the show, a few of the birds go off-script and disappear for a while. It's kind of funny, with the trainer just standing there waiting...and waiting...and eventually giving up...and it reminds us that while some of the things in the park are "fake", these at least are real birds.


We spend two days at the park and see absolutely every single show and village and nook and cranny there is, so far. They are building more as we speak. For information sake, we are there the last week of August, on a Tuesday and Wednesday, and while we are too late to reserve a hotel in the park itself, we don't experience horrible lines within the park. Friends who went on a weekend in July couldn't get in to see all the shows, even after waiting an hour or more sometimes, because the seats would fill up.

To be fair, I should say we see all the shows except for one, which is the one show many people consider the park's pièce de résistance: the enormous Cinéscénie show for which you need to buy tickets a good half year in advance (and I never plan this far ahead). It's supposedly the largest live night-time show in the world, with 3,500 volunteer cast members. Per show. Is there a larger daytime show? I can't imagine. The "stage" covers 23 hectares and also involves 1200 paid actors, 120 horseback riders, 100 technicians, and 300 in the security and logistics staff. The show uses 8,000 costumes, 800 fireworks, 8,000 projectors, and 150 jets shooting water 30 meters high. Many famous French actors lend their voices to the show, including one you've almost certainly heard of, Gérard Depardieu. The audience can house up to 14,500 places, so when I say that it's sold out every night for the half year (April through September) the park is open almost immediately upon the tickets going on sale 6-9 months in advance, that's really saying something.

Unfortunately, I can't go back in time to get us Cinéscénie tickets for our visit there, but at least with the rest of the park, I can simply go back in time.

THE CHEESE: Le Gratte Paille

Le Gratte Paille, also sometimes written Gratte-paille, is a triple-cream raw cows' milk cheese made in the Champagne-Ardenne (former region, now part of the larger Grand Est region) and Ile-de-France. It's an industrial cheese, which automatically prejudices you against it. But it shouldn't: remember that "industrial" when it comes to cheese only means -- and here I quote from myself -- that the milk used can be gathered from anywhere and the cheese is made in factories. In this case, it's a small factory, making small batches of the small cheese, so there's honestly not much difference between this and a cooperative or artisanal cheese.

Le Gratte Paille certainly tastes more artisanal than industrial. It tastes old-fashioned and traditional, too, but that's also wrong, since the he cheese was invented in 1980 at the Fromagerie Rouzaire at Tournan-en-Brie in the department of Seine-et-Marne. It's aged for 3-4 weeks and, because of the grazing period of the cattle, is considered optimally delicious between May and September. I have mine in July, and I certainly can't complain. I'm sure it's still quite lovely for the couple months before and after that period when it's available, but in the heart of the winter, you won't even be able to get your hands on it.

It may be difficult to get your hands on it at any time, frankly; it's not a cheese that I've seen frequently, or even at all, in shops. I get mine delivered from La Cremerie Royale. Since I've raved so much about this delivery service for high-end and rare cheeses (and yes! they deliver world-wide!), I figured you might like to see how the cheeses come: sous-vide and labeled.

The cheese is named Gratte Paille because of an ancient road nearby the fromagerie called the Buisson Gratte Paille ("The Scratchy Straw Bush") because of the bushes lining the road that used to scratch the horse-carts that rode by. It's a nice tie-in, because the cheese is also aged on a bed of straw, which leaves visible marks on the crust and also imparts a lightly earthy flavor.

Gratte Paille is heavenly, the kind of cheese that makes me cry out in surprise and pleasure when I first taste it (and then the second bite, and the third). It's related to a Brillat-Savarin, so it's no wonder that it's this sort of magical combination of silky and creamy, like half-melted butter, and also fluffy and airy. Gratte Paille melts in the mouth like a salty, buttery cloud with hints of nuttiness, straw, and hot sunshine.


Puy du Fou has won awards as the Best Theme Park in the World. Well, as far as I'm considered, Gratte Paille could, literally, win awards for the Best Cheese in the World. It is that amazingly delicious and perfectly made.

But more than that, given the back-in-time, hay-bale feel to Puy du Fou, where you're more likely to buy a straw hat on a hot day than a can of Coke, I like the straw/hay/paille connection.

I recocgnize there's an element of cheesiness (and yes, I feel bad using "cheesy" as an insult) to a park filled with historical re-creations, much as there's a certain prejudice against an "industrial" cheese. But despite that, I find Puy du Fou just so unique and classy, and I need a classic-feeling cheese to go with it. It may not be a truly old cheese, fabricated only since 1980, but Puy du Fou is not a truly old place, either, having been founded in 1978. They both make you feel the full weight of French history and tradition, though. And they are both really something special.


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