Dec 19, 2018

Tanks for Nothing: Gabiétou


I'm not going to tell you the news any better than the major news outlets can, but I can just tell you  the stories from my friends in France. The mood is, as you can imagine, bleak. It's not been helped by the fact that the weather the past couple weeks in Paris (and France in general) has also been bleak -- dark, cloudy, rainy, cold. Add to that cars burning in the streets, protesters building barricades, riots, injuries, looting, graffiti, a center-city lockdown, and now a terrorist shooting in Strasbourg on top of it all, and you'll understand my Parisian friends' gloominess. The photos of tanks on Paris city streets are, simply, surreal.

They say the mood has been reminiscent of the mood after the huge terrorist attacks in Paris -- both Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan. But not exactly the same. Obviously, there are fewer deaths and there's less bloodshed, but there's also more physical destruction and more foreboding. Knowing the protests are going to happen brings its own kind of difficulties and trauma: watching the stores get boarded up to prevent shattered windows and looting, seeing the protective barricades go up, clearing the streets of cars, waiting for the emails of cancelled classes and competitions for the kids, and just generally waiting for the next march-turned-protest-turned-riot.

One acquaintance saw a young woman walking by the Jardin de Tuileries with shopping bags from "bourgeois" shops like Zara get harassed by Yellow Vest wearers for her rich Parisian ways. Shops were closing up in the weeks leading up to Christmas instead of having their biggest season of the year. End-of-year school parties, sports competitions, and after-school activities were closed, sad email by email through the days. Every conversation was about the Yellow Vests, and the protests, and the tax proposal, and Macron's position. It was all-consuming. Yet on the tiny neighborhood streets, far from the rioting, life was mostly normal, if you ignored the conversations going on around you.

I was reminded of that post-terrorist-attack mood myself just a few weeks ago when I was in San Francisco during the northern California Camp Fire, with nearly two weeks of the worst air on the planet coming from the smoke. Camp Fire was aptly named, because the air was so thick that the air actually smelled like one, and when I smell wood being burned even now, it makes my stomach churn. I think it will be a while before I can enjoy -- or even get my nose close to -- something smoked (yes, even cheese). The mood in the city was, like Paris then and Paris now, oppressive, heavy, dark, sad, and bewildered. With streets nearly empty of people, everything closing down (schools, businesses, museums), and people in their gas masks, it was more than just the darkened sky and visible pollution that made it feel apocalyptic. And so I don't have to reach back that far to remember that visceral feeling of hopelessness and stress.

On the other hand, the bleak Parisian mood disappeared almost immediately, just like the smoke in San Francisco, where after two weeks of thick pollution, it rained and suddenly the days once again became blue, sunny, cheery, and fresh-smelling. Just like that, literally overnight.

What did the riots, and the tanks accomplish? Well, besides the cars and buildings damaged and looted, they hurt pre-Christmas sales, of course. Imagine the stores shuttering up over the weekends in December. They did get the French government to agree to cancel (or perhaps just delay...) the proposed diesel tax hike that was the catalyst for the protests. The hoped-for benefits to the environment will have to wait. And people now just feel sick of the whole darn thing and want to get back to living. So it seems like rather than creating any sort of constructive dialog or actions, there's a whole lot of nothing that was gained.

The series of weekends saw terrible destruction in Paris and Strasbourg, yet Parisians say that the city now feels like nothing ever happened. Human resilience is amazing (and perhaps foolhardy: I don't think we're done with it all yet). And you've got to hand it to the clean-up crew.

THE CHEESE: Gabiétou

The cheese appears to be named after the Gabiétou (sometimes spelled Gabiétous) hill and peak and glacier at the absolute southernmost edge of France, in the Pyrénées, on the Spanish border. Then again, it could be a pun off the name of the original creator, Gabriel Bachelet, who invented this cheese in 2001.

About one part sheep's milk and two parts cows' milk, the original Gabiétou was made with raw milk near Pau, in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques in the southwest region now called Nouvelle-Aquitaine. There is now also a pasteurized version for export (though according to US law, it can be imported into America unpasteurized, since it's aged more than 60 days). This hard, mountain cheese has a season from November to July for its manufacture, followed by an affinage of 3-5 months. During that time, a salt water brine is rubbed on the cheese, which leads to the orange-copper crust.

Sometimes, the cheese is sold young, still with a pale, ivory-colored body and thin orange crust. Or, get an older version -- like the one I buy, aged by Hervé Mons -- with a deeper yellow body and thick, rusty-brown crust. The flavor intensifies with age, of course, but in general is nutty, mushroomy, very earthy, and quite delicious.


Yellow cheese, for the Yellow Vests. Also, the Gabiétou has a crust -- when aged -- that looks, roughly, like the body of a car that's been set on fire. It's made about as far from the troubles in Paris as a cheese could be, while still being in the Hexagon, and it's a very fine cheese that doesn't deserve to be paired with such an unpleasant story. So my apologies to Gabiétou.


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