Jun 8, 2020

Midnight Run (for Baguettes): Moelleux du Revard


Talk about socially distancing...even before the pandemic, there was a new thing popping up for lovers of French treats: the chance to buy them from a vending machine or "distributeur automatique". Nowadays, that seems like a potentially excellent way to get that one thing you need without having to go in the store and wait on line. Having lived for so much of early adult life in Japan, I am not a stranger to stranger things in vending machines than most Americans or Europeans could imagine: underwear, shirts, hot soup, sake, umbrellas, batteries, fresh produce, and more. In France, the classics are finally coming to a vending machine near you.

It used to be that all the vending machines I would see in France sold the usual soft drinks and snacks. You can tell how old this photo is because that little girl with a huge green flower headband is currently a high school sophomore.

But then again, it's France, and I've also seen vending machines filled with fancy flavored Kusmi Tea. In a major train station, no less.

There are machines selling souvenir / commemorative coins in many churches and historic castles which are not technically vending machines, but they still have an exciting vending machine feel, with a reverse economic twist. You pay 2 and in return, you get a special 1 coin that, in fact, has no actual monetary value but makes  an excellent gift from the Tooth Mouse.

Less exciting for everybody but the very excited: street-side condoms.

It's a running joke between me and the girls that on the very rare occasion I give in and agree to buy them a treat (not condoms but rather a candy bar or such) from a vending machine anywhere in the French hexagon, inevitably we lose our money and get nothing out of the machine. Which doesn't exactly compel me to want to try frequently. 

But I cannot resist my first baguette vending machines. Here in this tiny town in the Vendée, we buy one loaf. Le distributeur automatique sits right outside the town's one bakery, which was closed on the day we passed through because it was both a weekend and a big national soccer match day (that's "football" for the Europeans), hence the kid wildly waving the flag. The baguettes come out of the bakery and get stocked in the machine, which can be quite handy in a small town for, say, an emergency midnight or Sunday post-beach baguette run.

Through the sad realities of economics, some small towns are actually losing their only bakeries. That means vending machines like this may become more ubiquitous, especially in the countryside. Recent headlines have decried the trend of declining boulangerie numbers as a national "tragedy" and they're not meant as a joke or as hyperbole. Of course, those headlines were written before the pandemic, so there may be a little more perspective nowadays and less inclination to label a dearth of bakeries as a "tragedy". On the other hand, due to the pandemic and the economic downturn, there may be even fewer bakeries open and a greater need for baguette vending machines.

Halfway around the world, San Francisco supposedly has a new baguette vending machine. I say "supposedly" because I am still in lockdown and the shopping mall where it's placed, Stonestown Galleria, is still closed. I am curious: will the baguette that comes out of it taste authentically French or -- more likely -- will it be sourdough? Once we're open again and I need to travel to the mall for some reason, I'll give it a whirl. It's stocked with half-cooked baguettes that finish cooking in batches, so that you can receive a hot, fresh loaf within a minute, no matter when you order it. Theoretically.

The same company that created that machine has 120 (at last count) of these vending machines -- which they prefer to call "micro-bakeries" -- throughout France and just the one in San Francisco as its American outpost.

In Paris, the first regular baguette vending machine appeared in the 19th arrondissement in 2011, and since then they've been popping up gradually. To be honest, it's hard to find one in central Paris, where the historic sites and tourists are concentrated (and where we lived/stay when in Paris), but you'll find them and these "micro-bakery" vending machines occasionally in the outer arrondissements, the suburbs, other cities in France, and the countryside.

In the "It was only a matter of time" category: In the last few years, we have the first cheese vending machines, which I briefly mentioned in a post about the great French butter shortage of 2017. The fromagerie Sancey-Richard in the small town of Métabief on the French side of the Swiss border may have been the first to post an outdoor cheese vending machine in France. Pre-cut cheese wedges from the machine sell for the same price as on the inside of the store. They are generally hard cheeses like Comté, Mont d'Or, Morbier, and Raclette. Since the success of this first machine, there have been more placed in Alpine towns in France. And there are some in Switzerland, too, though it's unclear if they copied France or vice versa. 

It's not just mountain towns: there are some in other parts of France, too. Warmer parts of France, where we hope the electric supply to the vending machine's refrigeration never gets accidentally cut. This one is in the town of Anglet (a town where I was a camp counselor during college!) on the Atlantic Coast, next to the Spanish border. From the look of it, there are some soft cheeses in the distributeur, too. Exciting stuff for the most cheese-obsessed among us.

Since many of the fromageries in these small towns close early, some like Sancey-Richard as early as 3:30pm, and/or are nearly always closed on Sundays, it's nice to be able to do something about it when you realize as you're prepping dinner that you're in desperate need of a little Comté

The latest vending machine "classic" are meats: there's an andouillette vending machine in the town of Mennetou which simply has to be the single worst-smelling vending machine in the world. But handy for all your emergency stinky sausage needs. For less stinky (we hope) meat needs, a distributeur automatique outside a Basque butcher ("L'ami Txulette") in the 11th arrondissement of Paris sells raw meats for cooking at home like pork chops and beef carpaccio.

But there's more to life than bread and cheese -- and even meat: Thanks to Moet-Chandon, there is now a high-end champagne vending machine, which surely sounds like an oxymoron.

I am being precise when I say "a" vending machine, as there is only one so far, to my knowledge, which stocks 320 bottles of Brut champagne, selling for about $30 at Selfridge's in London. No word on whether you can pay by stuffing 600 five-pence coins in a slot, and no word about any distributeurs automatiques de champagne in France...

In an era of social distancing, distributeurs automatiques may just be the most new-fangled way to get your old-fangled French bread, meat, wine, and cheese.

THE CHEESE: Moelleux du Revard

Moelleux du Revard is a hard mountain cheese made from raw cows' milk from a decidedly Swiss-German sounding cheese-maker named Schmidauser. Created in 2008 in Savoie, near Aix-les-Bains in a small town called Trévignin, it's actually based on an ancient cheese that has largely disappeared (though also may be making a small comeback), le Vacherin des Bauges. While this model cheese was made only in the winter with winter milk that was extra-rich with fat, Moelleux du Revard is made year-round.

But still the cheese is silky and rich, as the name "moelleux", which means "soft", suggests. The rest of the name explains more about the location: the town where the cheese is made is located at the base of Mont Revard, a mountain at the edge of the Massif des Bauges, the mountain range in the Parc Naturel des Bauges.

The cheese has an unusual tinge of pine-sap, due to a spruce strap that encircles the cheese during the month-long aging process. It's one of the more unusual aspects of the cheese's appearance, and you can see the thick brown/black stripe around the middle. It's not just for appearances though, as it also infuses a little flavor. The Moelleux du Revard is regularly washed during that month, which adds some extra-strength funkiness to the pink and orange-flecked crust and the yellow, semi-soft body of this luscious, high-quality cheese.


Though I did not get the chance to buy this cheese out of a vending machine -- sadly, because you know I want to -- it is the kind of cheese that would be sold inside a distributeur automatique de fromage. It comes from the region local to the mountainous vending machines and was invented recently, around the same time as the vending machines started. The Moelleux du Revard would easily plop down in a neat chunk from the mechanical arm without becoming a goopy mess, as long as there's steady refrigeration. 


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