Friday, April 20, 2012

Pass the Cheese Platter, Please

My neighborhood cheese shop
     You can't get around it in France.
     Whether pasteurized or not. Hard or soft. Pressed or fermented. Cow’s milk, or goat’s, or sheep’s. (They’d probably even make cheese from yak’s milk or llama’s if France had yaks or llamas.) Until recently, Paris alone had two restaurants - one of which was the famous Androuët - that served nothing but cheese dishes, from soufflé appetizers to fondue main courses to cheesecake desserts. But definitely no Velveeta or Cheese Whiz.
     General de Gaulle, who not only helped free France in World War II but also governed the country twice, once regretted he hadn’t been born American so he could be President of the United States instead. He lamented, "How can anyone govern a country that has over 300 cheeses!"
     There are many ways to classify those 300 cheeses. In the early years of my family, my half-French children broke them down into two categories: Red Cheese and Stinky Cheese.
     Red cheese they named after the Dutch Edam, with its protective red wax exterior. It included such geographically far-reaching varieties as Gouda, Provolone, Emmenthal, Chester or Wisconsin Sharp. The common traits of all these cheeses were a mild taste and a compact consistency. No surprises. Ever. You could never go wrong with a Red Cheese, God love ‘em.
A colorful palette of goat's cheeses
     But the Stinky Cheese... Ah, the Stinky Cheese! As delicious as it is flavorful, it ranges from "mildly pongy" to "stinky shoe". Goat cheeses come in a wide variety of shapes, consistencies and strengths, from almost none to overwhelming. Then there are the medium-strengths: Brie and Camembert which, when ripe, will make a break for freedom by relaxing so much they ooze into a totally new form, like the changling Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And finally there are the hard-core Stinkies that are right off the olfactory Richter scale, climaxing in the Maroilles or the Corsican broccio that might just be strong enough to clear a drain faster than the Roto-Rooter Man.

St. Nectaire
from central France

Camembert named after Charles VII,
the king Jeanne d'Arc helped crown

    Yet whether you opt for mild or heady, spreadable Roquefort from the heart of the nation or mountain-flower-fresh Beaufort from the Alps, no true French meal is complete and satisfying without it. As the famous 18th century French writer Brillat-Savarin said, "A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
     And if that’s not France in a nutshell - women and food - I’ll eat my hat.
     But could you put a bit of Comté on it, please?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Excuse me, please. My purse is ringing.

This is a story I wrote for my Postcards from Paris column in 1998.

On a bridge in Paris
When you live on two continents, half the time in France and the other half in the States, you start to notice similarities. And differences.
     One of the similarities is cell phones. One of the differences is how far-reaching the phenomenon has become. I’m not sure if it’s the roaming fees or the plethora of models and service providers to choose from, but America is definitely falling behind in the cell phone race. And I can prove it.
     During the rush up to Christmas, stores in France sold nearly 800,000 cell phones. 800,000 in a nation of some 55 million people. Not bad for a country where only thirty years ago you had to wait up to two years to get any phone at all! Yet now there are so many people talking and faxing that France has adopted ten-digit phone numbers, even for local calls.
In a park in Bordeaux
     800,000 new cell phone callers added to the ranks of people who already owned one. Me included. Yes, I admit it. I have walked the streets of Paris, semi-oblivious to the beauty of the City of Light, my Motorola clutched to my ear, talking to friends sometimes, but usually doing business, making a last-minute appointment or booking a hotel or restaurant for my tour clientele. Sometimes as I walked my purse would ring and everyone would turn and stare. Those times are over. People no longer stare. They’re too busy reaching for their cell phones to see if the call isn’t for them!
     Ah, the cell phone. What a great invention.
     But it creates very strange situations, such as...
     While a friend and I were searching desperately for a parking place on the Ile St. Louis, a tiny island floating in the Seine behind Notre Dame Cathedral, our hearts leapt for joy as a man got in his car. Great, we thought, he’s leaving. We can take his place and make it to the restaurant for dinner before it closes. But no. He wasn’t leaving, just getting into his car... to phone! Why didn’t he use the phone at home? He must have been calling his mistress.
     Then there was the lady in the phone booth. She blithely chatted on, the phone cradled against her shoulder as she leafed through a magazine. Suddenly there was a ringing, and she pulled out a cell phone and took a second call with her other ear.

Starting them out early

     Cell phoning isn’t just a street phenomenon though. People are even calling each other from trains. One woman was so aggravated at having to listen to a fellow passenger tell his whole life story over his cell phone, loudly and at great length, as they raced across the French countryside that she started to read her book out loud. "What are you doing?" the man asked in an irritated tone. "The same thing as you," replied the woman stonily.
On a café terrace

      But I think the prize has to go to this strange-but-true cellular story.
     Among his Christmas gifts, a man got a cell phone. After all the presents had been opened, he and his guests adjourned to the dining room to enjoy a typical Christmas feast, complete with many courses and washed down by the appropriate wines. A few hours later, when he returned to the living room to try out his new toy, he couldn’t find it. He searched through the remains of wrapping paper scattered around the tree. In vain. He looked behind the sofa cushions, under the tables and chairs, searched his pockets. His guests all helped. Suddenly a friend had an idea. "Why don’t you just call the number and we’ll locate it when it rings." Brilliant! They found the number and dialed it. After a pause, they heard a muffled ringing, which, when traced, was coming from... the stomach of the man’s large dog! The veterinarian, consulted over a real phone, advised him just to wait until Nature ran its course.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Back when women sewed their own clothes

Drawings by Dominique Corbasson
When I was in junior high (we didn't call it middle school then, and it ran from 7th through 9th grades), girls were forced to take home economics every year.  Boys had to take one semester of it, and girls got to have that semester in the woodshop, where we purported learned how to run a jigsaw.  That's all I remember.  Lord only knows what the boys were taught to do.  Not much, judging by their results as husbands (or so their wives tell me).
     But we girls were taught how to be Perfect Little Homemakers, the term already preferred over Housewives. We were taught to cook, although all I can remember of those two and a half years, one hour a day, five days a week, is White Sauce 1, 2 and 3. Mine were always lumpy. It was my weak point and still, after years in France (where I’m known as a passable chef, even among friends who are chefs), I still pause in trepidation if any recipe calls for a béchamel sauce, which is basically a White Sauce with a bit of nutmeg and a French accent thrown in.
     We also were taught to sew our own clothes, right down to how to adjust a store-bought pattern if you, as a flawed female specimen, had too much junk in the trunk or your "girls" weren’t Hugh Hefner-worthy.... or both. (I still remember a friend, Irene, with a 19" waist, but mine was only 21" then, so...) I did better in that, even though I once sewed the sleeves into a dress the wrong way twice in a row - left with right and right with left - but the third time was a charm.

All this came in handy when I found myself in France, and - after three moves - in Montmartre. Once upon a time it was a tiny village on top of the butte, the hill, with windmills running down the slopes. At its foot, a few more small villages grew up, including one on the south-east side called the Village d’Orsel. In time, an expanding Paris spilled over into Montmartre and the Village d’Orsel got a covered market, the Marché St. Pierre*. And that market in turn lent its name to what has become the fabric district of Paris.
     Take the métro to the Anvers station and walk up the rue de Steinkerque, where fabric shops still alternate with ever-encroaching souvenir shops. After crossing the rue d’Orsel - the main road of the village of the same name - you’ll arrive at the park at the foot of the Sacré-Coeur. Turn right and you’ll see that old covered market built in 1868 by a disciple of Baltard, architect of the famous Les Halles markets. Just beyond that is a large blue building which many people know as Le Marché St. Pierre and others just as Chez Dreyfus.
Bed linen section
     The building’s real name is Dreyfus, Déballage du Marché St. Pierre, so all of them are right. There’s been a Chez Dreyfus for over a century, but the building is only about 60 years old. I’ve heard about a huge fire that once broke out, killing many shoppers and staff, but I couldn’t find a record of it anywhere. If fire ever broke out today, the results might be the same. The floors are bare wood - which I’ve never seen waxed - and all the counters and racks are also made of wood. For kindling, it would be hard to do better than the store’s 50,000 bolts of fabric, stacked one on top of another.
     And it would be quite a fire, because this Temple du Tissu (temple of fabric) covers a total of 2,500 m2 (27,000 sq ft) over five floors. The cheapest fabrics are on the ground floor level - both inside and out - to draw shoppers in with prices from 99 centimes to 3 euros per meter... that’s $1.30 - $4 per yard. "We promote the atmosphere of a warehouse. We want shoppers to feel like they’re at the market," explained manager David Bord. "We even have products by famous designers, at a fraction of the price."
     The store advertises itself as handicapped accessible, and it does have an elevator, which was run by Monsieur Paul for over 30 years, and maybe still is... I always take the stairs. (Luckily for me, the bed linen is only on the second floor.) But I don’t see how a wheelchair could ever make it between the stands of fabric. It’s always overcrowded and hectic. The salesclerks, yardstick in one hand and a sharp pair of scissors in the other, pivot and swerve their way through customer after customer, sending them off to pay at the central register, where they risk being insulted by a series of grumpy cashiers.
     You can find pretty much anything at Dreyfus: wide fabrics that I’ve personally used to sew my own sheets, others that were perfect for curtains for my windows, terrycloth if you feel like making your own towels, fun fabrics for creating disguises or costumes, even oilcloth for baby-proof tablecloths... as well as any other kind of fabric you might need to become a Paris fashion plate. If somehow they don’t have what you want, you can go next door to Moline, founded in 1879, or across the street to Reine, whose queenly name may have something to do with the higher quality of goods available. But Dreyfus remains the legend.
     With the rise of ready-to-wear fashion in the 1960s, sewing fell out of favor somewhat. But now interest in sewing-your-own is staging a come-back. Dreyfus, Moline and Reine probably have a long life ahead of them.
     If you’re at all interested in what real life in France is like and you’re up visiting the Sacré-Coeur and the artists on the Place du Tertre, drop by Dreyfus on your way back to the métro. It’s a short detour, and you’ll get a colorful eyeful of everyday French living that most tourists don’t see.

Dreyfus Déballage du Marché Saint Pierre
2 rue Charles Nodier
75018 Paris

Tissue Reine
3-5 place Saint-Pierre
75018 Paris

Tissus Moline
1-3-5-7 et 2-4-6 rue Livingstone
75018 Paris

Gymnase Ronsard
in old Marché St. Pierre covered market

*Half of the old covered market
has been a public gymnasium
since the market closed.
The other half provided
parking for garbage trucks
when I moved into the neighborhood.
But in 1986 the garbage trucks drove off
and the premises were turned into the
 Musée d’Art Naïf Max Fourny,
also known as the Halle St. Pierre.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On the Road: High Tide at Mont Saint-Michel

Everyone has a certain number of special places in the world. Places that make the heart sing. Places where you stop and just soak it all in. Places you leave only with regret.
     Mont Saint Michel is one such place for me.
     And judging by the crowds, for many thousands of other people, too. Every day.

     This fortress island is amazing for so many reasons. Its longevity - it’s been around, gradually, for over a thousand years. Its architecture - towering high above the seascape, seemingly defying the law of gravity. Its setting - in the nook of a great bay, surrounded by water at high tide. And although it’s beautiful any time of the year, it is particularly amazing when the highest tides of the year encircle this rocky citadel.
     The particularity of the bay of Mont Saint Michel is that its seabed is fairly flat and so the mascaret glides in fast. On certain days of the year, the tide comes in almost at the speed of a galloping horse, or more scientifically at 12 km per hour (8 mph). They call it the mascaret; we would call it a tidal bore. I like the French better. It sounds like a dessert wine, as in "Would you like a glass of mascaret with your crème brûlée?"
The mascaret

Gendarme escorts foolhardy strollers
to safety

     The flatness of the seabed also means that when the tide goes out, it goes waaaay out. And when the tide comes back in and reaches its highest point, the water is 15 m (50 ft) higher. Or deeper, whichever way you like to think of it.
     For those of you who don’t understand tides, here’s a crash course. Tides are caused by gravity, much as an apple falls to the ground. The Moon exerts its gravity on Earth’s waters, and so does the Sun. When those two are aligned, the attraction adds up. That happens during a new moon or a full moon. And as the Earth revolves around the Sun once a year, there are two times each year when the Sun is over the Equator, which means it has a maximum attraction. If the Moon is also aligned with the Sun at that moment, you get "the tide of the century". All this means that each tide will have a different height, so scientists have devised a measuring coefficient which runs from 20 for the least high tide to 120 for the very highest.
     That’s the height. Now for the speed. A tide is really a wave of water. So depending on the depth and topography of the seabed, the tide will come in faster or slower. At Mont Saint Michel, the tide comes in from the Atlantic Ocean. And as the bay’s seabed is fairly level, it meets little resistance. So it comes in as a visible line of water that is easy to see advancing.
     So much for the science of it. But that doesn’t describe the amazing experience of watching the mascaret from the terrace at the top of the Abbey. It advances inexorably, and the fog horn calls out to warn those who are strolling across the sands. You might be able to outrun it, except for two things. First of all, as there are three streams that flow into the bay; they fill up first and might cut you off from land.
     And then there’s the quicksand.
     Sure, all that sand looks the same when you’re peering down at it. It even looks the same at eye level as you walk across it. But it isn’t. Only a few years ago, a horse and rider got trapped. The rider managed to jump off to safety and run for help. But it took a tractor and several people to pull the frantic horse out, its legs already almost totally swallowed up by the quicksand. And many are the pilgrims over the centuries who never made it to the Abbey. Which is why you only cross the bay at low tide with an experienced guide, often accompanied by a trusty Labrador retriever.

A tenuous hold on land
     I always try to time my visits to Mont Saint Michel with the high tides. There’s something magical about being cut off from land, except for that little two-lane road on the embankment (slated to disappear one day soon, returning the Mont to its original island status). Seen from the shore, it all looks so tenuous, a bit of rock sticking out of the sand, crowned with one of the greatest architectural wonders Man has ever achieved.
     And a gilded archangel Michael looking down on it all, keeping watch.

If you missed the high tide in March of 1997,
you’ll just have to wait until March 21, 2015 -
the high tide of the century (coefficient 119).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Recipe of the Month: Epaule d'agneau boulangère

In the old days of France, not everyone had the kind of oven they could roast meats in. Of course, it wasn’t a problem because most of the population didn’t have the kind of money that allowed them to buy meats suitable for roasting. Such cuts were reserved for feast days, such as Christmas and Easter... if at all.
     So how did they roast their meat on those rare occasions? What was their solution? People would take their roasts to the village boulanger - the baker - who had a perfect oven for this. The baker also would lend his oven for Sunday dinner, cooking all the village’s casseroles between two ovenloads of bread.
     When I got my first real apartment in Paris and Thanksgiving rolled around, I had a double quandary: where to find a turkey in what was off-season in France... and then how to roast it if I found one, given my lack of an oven. As by then I’d made friends with the baker, and was aware of this old custom, I decided to ask him to help me out. And he did. Year after year.
     This month’s recipe - in its most traditional version - got its name from this custom of taking roasts to the boulangerie. It’s one of those all-in-one dishes the baker was happy to cook for his customers. But instead of turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s lamb for Easter, or Passover... or just for a fancy dinner. Aside from the lamb, the rest of the ingredients are inexpensive, especially if you have an herb garden with your own rosemary.

Rosemary (romarin, in French)
  • 2½ -3 lb shoulder of lamb, bone removed
  • olive oil
  • 2/3 c of white wine
  • 5 large firm potatoes (Yukon gold are good)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • few sprigs of rosemary
  • salt and ground black pepper

- The night before the meal, slice the cloves of garlic into smallish pieces and insert them into little incisions made in the lamb. Then massage it with olive oil (shades of Julia Child) and finally sprinkle with salt, freshly ground pepper and the rosemary. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator overnight.
- When you’re ready to roast the lamb, preheat the oven to 450° F (230°C).
- Peel the potatoes and slice them crosswise, somewhat thin. (If you do this in advance, cover the potatoes with water until you’re ready to cook them.) Also slice the onions somewhat thin.

- Spread some olive oil in the bottom of a roasting pan and then spread the potatoes evenly. Spread the onions on top of the potatoes. Pour the wine over the potatoes and onions. Salt and pepper both. Unwrap the lamb, lay it flat on the top and put it in the oven on the middle rack.
- After 15 minutes, lower the oven to 350°F (175°C). Continue to roast for 10-12 minutes per pound for medium-rare (the preferred French way) or 13-15 minutes per pound for well-done (which to me makes the meat dry and much less interesting). If the lamb is getting too dark at any point, cover with aluminum foil for the rest of the oven time.
- Remove the lamb for cutting and let it sit while you put the vegetables in a serving dish. Use a slosh more white wine to scrape up all the browned bits and drippings for gravy, thickening with a bit of cornstarch, if necessary.
Serves 4-6, depending on appetite.
Accompany with a simple salad with vinaigrette dressing (made with walnut oil, if possible) and garnished with walnuts halves and crumbled roquefort.

A cabernet sauvignon is perfect for this delicate meat.