Apr 18, 2018

What Time is It? Cheese O'Clock: Le Cendré Fermier


Now that most watches and clocks are digital, analog watches with their big and little hands are practically relics of the past. Until, of course, you compare them with actual relics of the past, ancient timekeepers -- sundials. There are plenty of these around France, and even in the heart of Paris itself. You really can't set your watch by them (and no need to set your phone as it is syncing automatically, of course), but you can at least count on them to be fascinating.

Of these, I think my very favorite is this 1711 (MDCCXI) beauty painted on the side of a wall in the Alsatian village of Bergheim, very near the German border. The Latin text, "Sicut umbra fugit vita" means something along the lines of "like a shadow does life flee" (or more poetically, "like a shadow is life fleeting"). If you knew how to read the sundial -- and I don't -- you could tell the hours, half hours, quarter hours, seasons, zodiac positions, date of the year, moon phases, and sunrise and sunset times. Yet virtually none of the those would be accurate.

Why not? Factor in things like leap years, the international daylight savings nightmare (you see where I stand on this), and standardized time zones. Imagine that if high noon is determined by a sundial, not only is it roughly an hour apart in Paris and London, it gradually hits noon between the two cities, town by town, as the earth rotates. And forget about daylight savings (really, can we please just forget about it already?), introduced to France in 1976.

Until 1891, each locale in France based its time on solar time, so that sundials like this one above, in the Vendée, were always accurate. That also meant noon for me, in the Vendée, was slightly off of noon in the Loire Valley, which was slightly off of noon in Paris, etc. But then, in 1891, the main body of France (with its borders at the time) unified into one time zone, based on Paris solar time, in order to facilitate railway scheduling. Because the French were then -- as they still are now, and probably always will be -- habitually fashionably late, the railways used a unified time that was actually five minutes behind Paris solar to aide travelers running late. Nowadays, the train clocks run on time (GMT+1 winter and GMT+2 summer), even when the trains themselves don't.

How off are the sundials -- even the ones that work? I found this explanation both helpful and confusing. Looking at a sundial in Bésançon, France, on May 19th, 2010, you would need to made these adjustments:
  • Solar hour on the sundial, at noon: 12:00
  • Longitude correction: +35 min 52 sec
  • Equation of time: -3 min 32 sec
  • Daylight savings: +1 hr
So that when the sundial reads noon, your iPhone would tell you it's actually 1:32pm (and 20 seconds).

You know that old adage that the sun never sets on the British Empire? Well, nowadays that can most honestly be said about France. Because of overseas territories, France has not just the one time zone of the main hexagon but also 11 more time zones in the republic -- the most time zones of any nation on Earth.

Not all sundials are antique. This little girl on the sunny yellow wall, painted in 2001, cheerily look down over the sundial in the town of Obernai, also in Alsace, where she proclaims, in Latin, that you should "Seize the day and live in the moment" -- whatever moment that is, using whatever clock/sundial/watch/phone/time-keeping mechanism you have.

Even in the heart of Paris, you can find sundials -- 120 of them, in fact, found in every arrondissement except the 17th. I certainly haven't noticed them all, or even a tiny fraction, but the most famous is designed by Salvador Dali and given as a gift to friend who owned a boutique at 27 rue Saint-Jacques near my home in the 5th arrondissement. The lady in the sundial has a scallop-shaped head not only because Dali was utterly bizarre but also in reference to the name of the street, Saint-Jacques (scallops) which is in turn a nod to the fact that people used to walk through this, the oldest street in Paris, as part of the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle pilgrimage (The Way of St. James, in English). While the street is ancient, the clock is not. Seeing as how it was unveiled in 1966, and how the design was purely artistic and not functional (in other words, it never worked and never will), it's not used to keep time, but rather to enjoy your time in Paris.

THE CHEESE: Le Cendré Fermier

Le Cendre Fermier is about as generic a cheese as it gets: The name literally means, simply, "Farmhouse Ashed." So, any ashed, farmhouse cheese without a fancier name could call itself this. In this case, it's a goat cheese, made from raw goats' milk, aged a few weeks, and ashed.

A cheese like this could come from anywhere, though this one comes from the Western part of France -- Poitou Charentes and the heart of goat cheese country. Lucky me. It makes for a truly fine version of this generic cheese. The crust is substantial yet delicate, and the texture of the cheese is a sort of dry-creamy silk. For a cheese with such a simple name (almost no name, really), it's a wonderfully complex flavor: herbaceous and grassy with a sweet, spring-like tang.


This is the third (or more) story for which I wish I could use the Compostelle cheese, in honor of the Dali sundial in Paris (and connection there with the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle pilgrimage). But, having already used it, I need a different cheese to accompany my story, so I look through my files for as-of-yet unused cheeses.

Just as it's always high noon somewhere (as far as sundials go), you can find a great, generic farmhouse ashed goat cheese anywhere in France. But mostly I choose this cheese for this story because as soon as I see the great shadow cast across the platter, I immediately think of the sundials. What time is it? It's Cheese O'clock, of course!

While I suppose you could tell time by the shadow cast from a cheese, it would be hard to do, since the cheese would simply melt in the mid-day sun. However, the one time you can tell with the aid of this cheese is the interval of about 4-5 minutes -- the time it takes for it to be devoured from first to last drop.


  1. Thank you for the sundials and the Poitou cheese. I can't wait to be back in Poitou. I will borrow the phrase "Cheese o'clock"!


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